As this is posted, it would have been Edgar Allan Poe’s 208th birthday. Whether you’re a fan of Poe’s writing or not, it’s hard to deny his impact on literature and culture. Personally, I like it that the Baltimore (US) professional football team is called the Ravens.
Certainly, Poe had a tremendous influence on crime fiction. In fact, he is often regarded as the creator of modern detective fiction. His C. Auguste Dupin stories featured a detective in ways that hadn’t been done before. And fans can tell you that that he also created memorable horror stories.
What’s interesting about those horror stories is that they rely much more on psychological suspense and tension than on gore and violence. And, for many people, that psychological approach can build more tension, and is more frightening, than outright violence is.
Poe is by no means the only author to create stories with that element of psychological suspense, even horror. We see it quite a lot in crime fiction. For instance, Marie Belloc Lowndes The Lodger is the story of Ellen and Robert Bunting, who have retired from domestic service and opened their home to lodgers. They’re quite particular about the people they accept, so they haven’t had many lodgers. But one day, a stranger comes to ask about a room, and seems to be exactly the sort of lodger they want. Calling himself Mr. Sleuth, this new roomer pays his rent fully and promptly. He has quiet habits, too, and ‘speaks like a gentleman.’ The Buntings need the money, so they agree quickly to an arrangement. In the meantime, London is caught up in the news of a series of murders of young women, committed by a man who calls himself The Avenger. Robert Bunting, in particular, is as taken with this news as anyone is, and follows the details with interest. At first, his wife doesn’t want anything to do with stories of the murders. But slowly, and with growing horror, she begins to suspect that her new lodger may actually be the murderer. That creeping fear, and the hints (rather than actual scenes) of violence add a great deal of suspense to this story.
Shirley Jackson was noted for her ability to create eerie, frightening stories without gore. Fans can tell you that The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle are both quite creepy novels. And then there’s her short story, The Lottery, which you can read right here. Do these stories count as crime fiction? Perhaps The Haunting of Hill House would be counted more as horror than as crime fiction. But We Have Always Lived in the Castle features arsenic poisoning and its consequences. And The Lottery…. I don’t want to spoil it in case you’ve not read it. But as far as I’m concerned, it includes a crime.
Daphne du Maurier also combined elements of horror and crime in her work, and much of the tension is psychological, rather than dependent on violence. In Jamaica Inn, for instance, Mary Yellan goes to live with her Uncle Joss and Aunt Patience Merlyn. Their home is a lonely inn on the moor in Cornwall, and it’s far from a warm, friendly place. The inn itself is eerie enough, and the more Mary finds out about the inn and some of its secrets, the eerier the story gets. There’s a real sense of horror as Mary discovers the truth about the inn. And there is some violence. But du Maurier relies much more on psychological suspense to build the tension and move the plot along.
Many people regard Stephen King as one of the masters of the modern horror story. But he has also used his skill at building eeriness and horror in the crime stories he writes. For instance, Delores Claiborne and Mr. Mercedes are certainly crime novels. But they also have elements of the horror story in them, too. There’s arguably an eerie sort of atmosphere, and the tension that builds is as much psychological as it is anything else. The same might be said of Misery. In all of those stories (and others King has written), there is violence – more than there is in some of the other examples I’ve mentioned here. But the violence isn’t the focus of the stories. Rather, it’s the psychological tension.
And I don’t think I could discuss that mix of crime and horror in fiction without mentioning Alfred Hitchcock’s film work. Several of his films are based on crime fiction, but even those that aren’t have that element of psychological suspense that really carries the plot along. And in some of those films, there really is very little violence. But they’re still suspenseful and eerie.
There are a lot of other authors (right, fans of, Hake Talbot, Patricia Highsmith and Pascal Garnier?) who have combined elements of horror with elements of the crime story to create eerie stories. It’s not easy to do that, especially if one doesn’t focus on gory violence. But when it’s done well, a dose of horror can add genuine suspense and creepiness to a crime story.
So, if you think about it, Poe didn’t just leave a legacy in terms of detective fiction (although he certainly did do that). He didn’t just leave a legacy of horror stories, either (although, of course, he did that, too). He showed how one might write a truly frightening, eerie story with a solid plot, but without resorting to a lot of gore.
ps. Oh, the ‘photo? Don’t tell me it never rains in Southern California.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Alan Parsons Project’s The Cask of Amontillado. This track comes from their release Tales of Mystery and Imagination. All of the songs are Poe titles, and the songs themselves inspired by Poe’s stories.