Learning to Write Horror From Edgar Allan Poe

Diane Callahan
Oct 12, 2020 · 10 min read
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How would you take revenge against your greatest enemy? Or perhaps “enemy” is too strong a word, and it’s someone who’s just so annoying that you’d like to see them…disappear.

In one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous stories, “The Cask of Amontillado,” the author inhabits the mind of a monstrous man bent on vengeance. I’ve read this story many, many times, and I notice something new with each reading. You can listen to my narration of the story, or read a text version.

At the time of writing this story, Poe had a feud with fellow author Thomas Dunn English. English created a caricature of Poe as a drunkard in one of his novels, and in revenge, Poe modeled Fortunato after his enemy…and then buried him alive. As the saying goes, “Don’t piss off a writer. They’ll put you in their book, and then they will kill you.”

“The Cask of Amontillado” can teach writers how to craft suspenseful short stories that feature an element of horror. Here were my five key takeaways.

1. Narrative Focus

Narrative focus is especially important in short stories, given you have to present a cohesive narrative in a small number of words. This often means focusing on one point of conflict and limiting the number of characters. In “The Cask of Amontillado,” there are only two characters, and the plot is fairly straightforward: a man leads his frenemy underground and kills him.

This piece is on the shorter side, even by short story standards, wrapping up under 2,400 words, proving how much can be accomplished in a few pages.

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We can outline the narrative structure using standard plot points:

Exposition and Conflict:

Montresor opens by saying, “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.” From that very first sentence, the reader knows he has ulterior motives when he tells his friend about the wine.

We’re about 650 words into the story at this point, the 27% mark.

Rising Action:

They travel into the catacombs beneath Montresor’s house, commenting on their surroundings and Montresor’s family. We get a sense of atmosphere and suspense because we know something bad is going to happen. There are some hints about why he’s committing this act of revenge.

This is an additional 900 words or so — 65% of the way through the story.

Climax:

Montresor chains Fortunato to the wall. He then mortars him in, with Fortunato hoping it’s all a joke.

This takes 720 words, bringing us to the 95% mark.

Falling Action/Resolution:

The last paragraph ties up the story in around 80 words — the final 5%. The concluding sentences let us know what happened after Montresor killed Fortunato. Did he get caught? Nope. Did Montresor regret it? Probably not.

Not all stories will hit these points at the same percentage marks, but we can see how Poe presents a clear narrative arc.

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2. Purposeful Details

When you examine the devil in the details, it’s clear that Poe’s choices of setting, imagery, and dialogue all serve to generate suspense:

  • The story takes place during carnival season, a time when people abandon social order and masquerade as someone they’re not.
  • The two characters’ outfits exaggerate their core qualities. Fortunato is wearing a jester hat — he’s literally dressed as a fool, with the tinkling bells and his drunkenness befitting how annoying Montresor finds him. Montresor himself is wearing an ominous black silk mask.
  • The dark, quiet catacombs are in direct contrast to the colorful party going on above, as if they’re descending into Hell itself.
  • What’s more, there’s immense irony in Fortunato’s name, which means “the fortunate one.”
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Montresor’s family motto and coat of arms also foreshadow his revenge plot. The motto “Nemo me impune lacessit” translates to “No one attacks me with impunity.” In his coat of arms, “the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel,” just as Montresor is the foot crushing the irritating snake that is Fortunato.

A writer on eNotes observes:

“‘The Cask of Amontillado’ is one of the clearest examples of Poe’s theory of the unity of the short story, for every detail in the story contributes to the overall ironic effect.”

Poe called this “unity of effect,” and he wrote about the concept in an essay entitled “The Philosophy of Composition,” which dissects his process for writing poetry, particularly “The Raven”:

“In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction.”

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Poe seemed to know what emotional effect he wanted the story to have. The setting, dialogue, and character details all contribute to a single purpose — that of evoking dreadful irony. The important thing is that Poe never points out his own cleverness; he adds foreshadowing and trusts that the reader is smart enough to figure it out for themselves.

For instance, when Montresor first begins talking to Fortunato, he tells him:

“As you are engaged, I am on my way to Luchesi. If any one has a critical turn it is he. He will tell me — ”

But Fortunato cuts him off to attest:

“Luchesi cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry.”

This exchange is a calculated move on Montresor’s part, who further strokes Fortunato’s ego by adding:

“And yet some fools will have it that his taste is a match for your own.”

He already knew that Fortunato thought Luchesi a lesser connoisseur, and so he manipulates Fortunato by playing on his desire to prove he’s better than his rival. Montresor identified pride as his friend’s weakness, and pride is ultimately what leads to Fortunato’s demise.

Poe could’ve had Montresor internally state something like, “But I only mentioned the other wine connoisseur to play on Fortunato’s ego and ensure he followed me to the catacombs, at risk of me calling upon his rival’s expertise.” Instead, Poe lets the dialogue speak for itself, with Montresor’s intentions being implied.

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3. Suspense

Poe’s unity of effect creates an atmosphere of dread and anticipation. The characters’ conversation topics contribute to building that suspense. The reader knows Montresor is plotting revenge against Fortunato, but not what exactly he plans to do or why. This knowledge imbues the dialogue with a strong subtext — a hidden double meaning behind Montresor’s words.

The eNotes writer points out how Montresor secretly taunts Fortunato in the dialogue using verbal irony:

“For example, when Fortunato says he will not die of a cough, Montresor knowingly replies, ‘True, true.’ When Fortunato drinks a toast to the dead lying in the catacombs around them, Montresor ironically drinks to Fortunato’s long life. When Fortunato makes a gesture indicating that he is a member of the secret society of Masons, Montresor claims that he is also and proves it by revealing a trowel, the sign of his plot to wall up Fortunato.”

Montresor’s replies sound innocent enough on the surface, but given what we know about his intentions, they take on the tone of a veiled threat. The essence of suspense is the intense feeling of uncertainty as you wait for the outcome of an event. Here, the dialogue is a constant reminder of the revenge to come.

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4. A Murderer’s Perspective

The story is told from the perspective of a first-person unreliable narrator, but two sentences in particular change how we view the story. In the second sentence, Montresor addresses a specific person, saying:

“You, who so well know the nature of my soul.”

And in the second-to-last sentence, he refers to Fortunato’s remains:

“For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them…”

These sentences suggest that Montresor is recounting this story to someone close to him fifty years after the murder. It’s hard to tell how Montresor feels about killing Fortunato in retrospect. His last sentence declares, “In pace requiescat!” or “Rest in Peace.” But is his tone genuine or sarcastic?

There’s almost a sense of guilt at the very end as Montresor seals up the bricks:

“My heart grew sick; it was the dampness of the catacombs that made it so.”

Montresor takes care to say it’s the catacombs making him feel that way, but if our murderer is an unreliable narrator, can we trust what he tells us about his feelings?

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Montresor’s insistence that he feels no guilt connects to his definition of the perfect revenge at the beginning of his tale:

“I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.”

Montresor succeeds in punishing Fortunato with impunity, in that he never faced the legal consequences of his crime. The third sentence implies that Montresor wanted Fortunato to know that this was a punishment as well as who was responsible for his death, rather than hiring someone else to assassinate him in a dark alley.

But the ambiguity in the phrase “when retribution overtakes its redresser” could mean that Montresor has not truly achieved revenge if he feels even a twinge of regret. In his mind, revenge is only a success if he faces no suffering or penalty for his actions. He doesn’t dare admit to any feelings of guilt, even when his heart grows sick as he listens to the jingling of Fortunato’s bells, perhaps because admitting regret means that retribution has overtaken him.

Writing from the perspective of an unreliable narrator allows Poe to create emotional ambiguity, making Montresor feel more complex. Our characters might not recognize certain truths about themselves.

5. Room for Mystery

The ending leaves Montresor’s motives a mystery. Although Montresor mentions bearing a “thousand offenses” from Fortunato, the slights are never specified. Maybe Fortunato was just an annoying person who constantly bragged about his social status and expertise.

We don’t know if the punishment was equal to the crime, and we only have the narrator’s word to go on. There’s a sense of horror in the fact that someone could kill you over petty differences.

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In most mystery novels, the killer not having a clear motivation might be unsatisfying, but that lack of knowledge is what adds to the horror in this story. In real life, we’re obsessed with motives. We want to know why someone would murder someone else. Our storytelling brains have an intense desire for cause and effect; we want to create a narrative where behind every reaction is an action that caused it that could be controlled to prevent future crimes. If a man is abusive, perhaps he’s that way because his father was abusive. Or maybe a woman grew up in a cult with no control over her life, so now she controls others.

In this story, the absence of an understandable motivation is more disturbing than if Montresor had had a particular reason for killing Fortunato. It’s that uncertainty that’s terrifying. How can we protect ourselves from that type of murderous rage when we don’t know the cause?

In the words of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft:

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

The dark beauty of “The Cask of Amontillado” lies in the horror of uncertainty.

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Writing Exercise

  • Try crafting a story where the reader knows a secret another character doesn’t — yet.
  • Fill your dialogue with subtext, where one character is secretly manipulating and taunting the other.
  • Make your readers feel a sense of anticipation as they wait for the unwitting character to discover the truth.

And to Edgar Allan Poe, I say, in pace requiescat!

Whatever you do, keep writing.

What are your thoughts on this story? Rant and rave in the comments.

This post was adapted from a video on my YouTube channel Quotidian Writer. You can watch the full video below!

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Diane Callahan

Written by

Fiction writer and editor, a.k.a. YouTuber Quotidian Writer. www.quotidianwriter.com

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +771K people. Follow to join our community.

Diane Callahan

Written by

Fiction writer and editor, a.k.a. YouTuber Quotidian Writer. www.quotidianwriter.com

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +771K people. Follow to join our community.

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