“YE who read are still among the living; but I who write shall have long since gone my way into the region of shadows. For indeed strange things shall happen, and secret things be known, and many centuries shall pass away, ere these memorials be seen of men. And, when seen, there will be some to disbelieve, and some to doubt, and yet a few who will find much to ponder upon in the characters here graven with a stylus of iron.” (Poe, 1850).
Full story here.
Most people forget that they have as much power over fear as fear has upon them. The paragraph above is the opening of Shadow, by Edgar Allan Poe. The so-called master of horror. The first time I read this three-paragraph flash fiction, I found it was rather spine-chilling. But when I took a look from another perspective, my fear melted away.
So let’s begin with why is this short story so alarming. Most of it has to do with descriptions. Poe begins by telling the reader that the person telling the story is dead. That first event already sets a tone for the rest of the story and puts the reader on alarm. Then, he gives context of what is happening to his piece’s world. A plague, empty streets, nervous people. Finally, he concentrates on the ambiance of a closed space, a house where seven people are meeting. He describes the dark, funeral house; with its eerie furniture and the sounds that fill it. However, what ties together the story is the description of the character’s sensations. Instead of using words as fear of anger, he says the place feels suffocating and dense with nervousness. In horror, the connotation of words can make a huge impact on the reader.
Poe dedicates most of the text to build up the atmosphere. When he puts together the scenario correctly, even actions such as singing or joking around have a tint of terror. But betting on the worldbuilding also has its risks.
Have you ever wondered why do we wait until a cold, windy month to pull scary pranks? What would happen if we celebrated Halloween in the summer, when it’s sticky and hot and days seem longer? There is a reason why horror stories are better when told in the dark. And it all comes back to perspective.
Most of the time, readers have to put themselves in a specific mindset when entering a story. Mindset has an especially prominent role in horror. For example, I haven’t seen anyone read a horror story on the beach. Most prefer the quiet of their houses, rain clattering against the windows. As readers, we do this because when it’s dark and lonely, a horror story is easier to believe. We are essentially tricking our brains into thinking a paranormal creature could jump on us any moment now.
Now, let’s go back to Poe. Let’s say the plot doesn’t happen during the dead of night but during a warm afternoon. The person telling the story isn’t the man supposed to be dead, but the cook of the house, most likely complaining about how his guests aren’t even wearing a mask. Take two steps back. Take the eerie descriptions away, and focus on the actions.
What do I see? A group of men who were as drunk as Poe. Suddenly, lines such as “at the entrance of Aries, the planet Jupiter is conjoined with the red ring of the terrible Saturnus.” and even “I am SHADOW” don’t sound half as scary anymore.
Many people enjoy getting scared. If you’re one of them, go ahead and take full advantage of spooky month, of the winds that sound like howls and the crackling wood at night. But, if you’re like me and a horror story can steal your sleep, remember that perspective is key. Terror can’t embrace you if you don’t allow it to.
“The peculiar spirit of the skies, if I mistake not greatly, made itself manifest, not only in the physical orb of the earth, but in the souls, imaginations, and meditations of mankind.” (Poe, 1850).
is a young planster with too much passion and too little time on a day. She has been telling stories for as long as she can remember, whether they are thoroughly researched flash fiction pieces or improvised bedtime stories.