In human nature there exists a morbid desire to explore the darker realms of life. As sensitive beings we make every effort to deny our curiosity in the things that frighten us, and will calmly reassure our children that there aren’t any creatures under their beds each night, but deep down we secretly thrive on that cool rush of fear. Despite our efforts to maintain a balance of respectable emotions, we are a society of people who slow down to look at traffic accidents and find excitement in the macabre. We turn off the lights when watching scary movies, and when it’s time to go to bed, we secretly make sure the closet doors are shut. Fear keeps our hearts pumping and endorphins rushing, for it is an emotion that reminds us of our mortality. How ironic it is to experience more life in our fascination with death.
Two legendary writers have ruled the universe of death and horror with remarkable success, both gifted with the talent of introducing each reader to his or her own subconscious fears. Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King are the masters of their craft, blessed - or perhaps cursed - with imaginations that set higher standards in the field of writing. Both authors broke new ground in fiction that has had a significant impact on the world of literature. Similar in quite a few ways, though contrasting in many others, this paper will explore the lives and styles of these two remarkable men, paying close attention to the differences that exist in their approaches to writing. A look into Poe’s childhood might shed some light on where this divergence stems from.
Edgar Allan Poe was born in 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts to drifting actor parents. Denying his parental responsibilities, his father abandoned his wife and three children, leaving her to support the family as best she could. She traveled through various cities acting in stage engagements as she could get them, but the struggle eventually took a toll on her health. Towards the end of 1811 while in Richmond, Virginia, she became ill and died. Her children were promptly farmed into homes, Edgar being placed into the residence of a well-off, yet unsupportive merchant named John Allan. Allan was emotionally detached from Poe, refusing to even legally adopt the boy. This move would begin a chain of events, eventually triggering a drinking problem that would induce the majority of Poe’s psychological troubles later in life. He was raised in an affluent home, but lacked the emotional support needed to build fortitude and confidence in himself.
In Poe’s youth he didn’t pursue a life toward writing, probably due to his assumption that he would eventually inherit his foster father’s estate. He would attend the finest boarding schools in training to be a proper gentleman, but when it came time to go to the University of Virginia in 1826, his foster father gave him a meager allowance that would barely sustain him. John Allan had always been a harsh disciplinarian, and sometimes even cruel to the orphaned boy, but this was the first time he denied Poe the means to survive outside of his home. Adding insult to injury, he also forbids Poe study of what his heart so desired: poetry. Going against Allan’s orders was not an option; what little money he was given to live off of would have been taken away. In an effort to make his money stretch out while in college, Poe turned to gambling, but like so many other gamblers he lost the money while developing a terrible compulsion. In short, his first term in college was not a success. When the semester was over Allan removed him from the University and forced him into a military academy.
In 1947 Stephen King was also born into a nomadic life style. His mother single-handedly raised both him and his brother while moving about the country in pursuit of their absentee father. Instead of dying under the pressure, though, King’s mother survived and proceeded to motivate her son to write as much as possible. Contrasting the Allan/Poe home, the Kings were financially deprived, though rich in family support. King lived to write, and even created his own literary paper called The Rag when he was still in grade school. He submitted hundreds of stories to magazines, mostly in the genres of horror or science fiction, and proudly displayed the rejection slips on a large nail over his typewriter. In King’s book “On Writing”, he recalls, “By the time I was fourteen… the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing” (41). Rejection was simply a motivation for King to write better than before.
King received his college education at the University of Main in Orono. He lacked a financial backer to cover his expenses, so he worked full time in order to pay his tuition. He had published several short stories by the time he reached college and was becoming a serious writer. Contrasting Poe’s lack of parental support, King’s mother gave him full encouragement to pursue his craft, leaving him with no doubt that this would be his undertaking in life. Because he was so well grounded in his goals, he remained focused in college and blossomed as a writer in the experience. Perhaps this is where the core difference exists between Poe and King; one lacked a strong emotional foundation in his youth and went on to make disastrous choices, consequently keeping him out of reach of success within his lifetime. The other writer was brought up with encouragement, fostering a strong belief in his talents, which in the long run probably gave him an extra push toward the success he’s experienced while still alive.
Before Poe was forced to leave the University of Virginia, he unfortunately discovered the curious effects of alcohol. “One glass of wine went to his head; very little more than that made him drunk. Alcohol was a dangerous stimulant for him - one that was eventually to bring about his ruin” (Van Doren Stern xviii). Beginning in college and continuing through the rest of his life, Poe would struggle with a drinking problem that earned him a broad reputation for being a senseless drunk. Though he frequently tried to quit drinking, it was never long before he would fall off the wagon and drink once again. Considering all that is currently known about the sustained effects of alcohol on the brain, it is possible that he never reached his full capabilities as a writer. One also has to wonder if his subject matters in writing (i. e., death, horror and fantasy) would have been the same if his youth hadn’t been so traumatic or his drinking so serious.
Similar to Poe, King was also an alcoholic, probably addicted as early as 1975. By 1985 he also developed a drug addiction to cocaine making him feel like a prisoner in his own body and mind. Between the alcohol and drugs he was on a downward spiral, and it was showing in his writing. He relates the dramatic effect that it took on his writing, stating “The deep part of me that knew I was an alcoholic as early as 1975… wouldn’t accept that. Silence isn’t what that part is about. It began to scream for help the only way it knew how, through my fiction and through my monsters. In late 1985 and early 1986 I wrote Misery (the title quite aptly describing my state of mind), in which the writer is held prisoner and tortured by a psychotic nurse. In the spring and summer of 1986 I wrote The Tommyknockers,… where these alien creatures got into your head and just started… well, tommyknocking around in there. What you got was energy and a kind of superficial intelligence… What you gave up in exchange was your soul. It was the best metaphor for drugs and alcohol my tired, overstressed mind could come up with” (On Writing 96-7). Unlike Poe though, King had a wonderful sense of support in his wife and friends, and in 1987 his wife Tabitha stepped in and gathered his friends for an intervention of sorts. With the help of those who love him, King was able to get clean and stay sober. It took a while for him to find his pace, but eventually he was able to exceed his abilities as a stoned writer and his success never suffered.
Poe and King both share an interest in horror, terror, death, and murder. Their many works reflect an imagination that most of their readers will only experience when dreaming at night. Death is a theme visited in more of Poe’s works, though. While many people (and things) have died in King’s stories, Poe takes death a step further and explores the processes and avenues of death. Nearly all of his works consisted of variations of a single theme. “Berenice,” “Morella,” and Ligeia” all deal with the deaths of beautiful women, the subject which Poe called “the most poetical topic in the world” (Van Doren Stern 191). “The Fall of the House of Usher” is another tale focusing on death, and is probably his best known. Other stories that ponder the realms of death include “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” “The Assignation,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “The Premature Burial.” The inventory of Poe’s death-inspired works could go on for days. Regardless of the story, though, Poe had a powerfully descriptive voice that made the reader identify with what he was trying to portray. One website characterizes his work as having “… the power of such a narrative voice, many a tale is indelible. Poe's imaginative sociology in "The Man of the Crowd" will tell you more about loneliness in the crowd than David Riesman did. The psychological analysis in "William Wilson" is an excellent and frightening exploration of split personality two generations before Freud” (Edgar Allan Poe - The Life of a Poet).
In some of his earlier work, such as “Carry,” “Cujo,” and “Salem’s’ Lot,” King’s characters rarely overcome their struggle with evil. Even in his book of short stories, “Night Shift,” many of his main characters die untimely deaths. (Coincidently, these were written during the time of King’s alcohol and drug addictions.) In most of King’s later writing, though, there is a recurrent theme of a struggle and survival that is absent in many of Poe’s works. In “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon” King has a young girl not only survive in the woods without food or shelter, but he also has her defeat the terrifying beast stalking her throughout the story. Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” is very similar to King’s “The Stand,” where both center on the demise of an entire population by means of illness. However, King’s characters come together to build a better world and overcome the evil guy trying to do them in. Poe’s characters simply lock themselves behind the gates of a mansion and die painful deaths.
Another way that Poe and King differ is in their style of writing. In his book “On Writing” King states, “One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for the long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones” (On Writing 117). Poe, on the other hand, seems to delight in the use of all the language that he can possibly fit into one sentence. Perhaps a look at comparative sentences would help to illustrate this. In Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the narrator states, “He admitted, however, although with hesitation, that much of the peculiar gloom which thus afflicted him could be traced to a more natural and far more palpable origin - to the severe and long continued illness - in-deed to the evidently approaching dissolution - of a tenderly beloved sister - his sole companion for long years - his last and only relative on earth” (Van Doren Stern 252). It took Poe all of 59 words to say that his friend was upset because his sister was dying. It is very descriptive and eventually gets his point across, but it can also be difficult for the modern reader to digest. In contrast, King is known for his ‘less is more’ approach to writing. In this excerpt taken from his story “Needful Things,” King creates a description that draws his reader into the tale: “When Nettie saw Polly’s white, puffy face and haggard eyes, her own fears, which had gnawed at her like sharp weasel’s teeth as she walked over, were forgotten” (233). The opening picture of these two women is vividly created. Though some refer to his style as ‘shock value writing’, it is easier to digest for most readers in our day and age. He is careful not to shock the reader back out of the story with stilted language. The reader becomes one with the story, whether they approve of the tale or not. One of the most common praises for Kings work is that “…he is able to piece together a large number of characters and tell a story from a variety of angles. The story is complex, but not difficult to understand. The characters are well developed and not one of them is superficial” (Trotter). However, all things being equal, King’s writing would not have been well received in the nineteenth century when Poe was writing. The context of their work reflects their own period in time.
Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King where brought up in two very different worlds, yet somehow both of their imaginations slithered off into the murky depths of horror and death. One came from an affluent yet unsupportive home, and the other from a struggling family trying to make ends meet, nevertheless full of support and love for each other. Both battled addiction, although only one was successful in getting sober before it took control of him. They both eventually conquered the field of writing with admirable success, and even if Poe’s use of language may be difficult to understand in this day and age, his subject matter is just as timely as Kings is. They have followed the norms in style of their respective cultures and times, even though their themes don’t exactly adhere to society’s morality. They are different and stand out because of it. We may never know if any of this affected either writer’s ideas or successes, or if they simply were destined to write the way they have. What we do know is that as readers we will never be the same. The things that have secretly scared us since childhood are forever entrenched in the stories by these two great writers, and the subject of fear will never grow cold.
WORKS CITEDCharters, Ann. The Story and Its Writer. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 1999. Edgar Allan Poe - The Life of a Poet. National Park Service. 4 Apr. 2001. King, Stephen. Needful Things. New York: Viking Penguin, 1991. ---. Night Shift. New York: Doubleday Dell, 1976. ---. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner, 2000. Van Doren Stern, Philip. The Portable Poe. New York: Penguin Books, 1957. Trotter, Jeffrey. Epinions. 5 Aug. 2000.