In the introduction to the critical anthology Horror: A Literary History, editor Xavier Aldana Reyes points out that the genre “takes its name … from the effects that it seeks to elicit in its readers. Since these are, arguably, best conjured up over short and intense fictional stretches, the genre is strongly associated with the short story format.” Indeed, horror and the short story share a long, intertwined history, including in the pulp magazines that flourished from the turn of the 20th century through the 1950s. But at least one of the modern short story’s progenitors is also a major figure in the development of Western horror fiction as we know it.
Edgar Allan Poe not only set the template for the modern horror story, he also had a huge influence on the theory of how short fiction works. Poe’s contribution to our modern understanding of short fiction rests largely on his theory of single effect. In a review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, Poe elucidated his understanding of single effect:
A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents – he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the pre-established design.
In his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe refers to his conception of a “radical error” many writers commit in constructing their stories. He imagines an author beginning with a thesis or, “at best,” devising “the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of [a] narrative,” from which the author will then fill in background detail, dialogue, “whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.” Instead of this paint-by-numbers approach to fiction, Poe again advocates for the usefulness of beginning with an effect, then crafting the tale on a sentence-by-sentence level as a means of achieving that effect. He writes:
I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view – for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest – I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?” Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can best be wrought by incident or tone – whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity of both incident and tone – afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.
Leaving aside Poe’s belief that originality is “easily attainable” – a premise that is debatable at best – it is not hard to observe how his philosophy of composition operates in his own work. The effect that Poe is most frequently and readily associated with is fear (or unease), and this single effect is on display from the very first lines of his 1843 story “The Black Cat.” The story, which first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, is one of Poe’s most famous, and for good reason. It is a masterpiece of terror and perverseness – the latter being a key word for Poe, one that he includes in all caps at one point in his tale. (A lesser known piece from the same period, “The Imp of the Perverse,” elevates the concept to the title, lending added credence to its significance in the author’s lexicon.)
“The Black Cat” involves the psychological breakdown of an ordinary man who begins to indulge his penchant for anger – exacerbated by alcohol abuse – first by putting out the eye of his devoted cat, Pluto, then by stringing the poor feline up on the branch of a tree. When he acquires a dopplegänger for Pluto – a stray that has taken up residence at a nearby tavern – the narrator again tries to do the poor animal in, but is stopped in this endeavour by his wife. He transfers his rage from the feline to the woman, killing her with the axe he was intending to use on the cat.
The story is narrated in retrospect in the first-person voice of an unnamed man awaiting execution. As regards Poe’s theory of single effect, the language of the opening sentences immediately establishes the uncanny nature of the story, although in a more subtle and complex manner than the author opts for elsewhere.
The same year “The Black Cat” appeared, Poe published “The Tell-Tale Heart,” another of his most famous works, and one with an opening sentence that is remarkable for its heightened state of emotional agitation: “True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” The narrator’s anxiety is embedded in the very language and grammar of his sentence; the exclamation point after the first word offers an emphatic tenor and the dashes setting off the word “nervous” conspire to create a kind of syntactical nervousness in the prose itself. The adverb “dreadfully” works to heighten the uncanniness, and the answer to the question that closes the sentence is more or less built into the very language the author has chosen as his manner of presentation.
Contrast this with the opening of “The Black Cat,” which is calmer and more controlled, its structure and syntax more immediately familiar and recognizable to readers: “For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief.” The tone here is measured, as befits a character resigned to his fate looking back on the circumstances that brought him to his current place. The word ”wild” seems like an outlier, especially when combined with “homely,” though the deliberateness of this choice becomes apparent as the story goes on. It is a domestic tale focusing on a married couple and their menagerie of pets. The word “homely” tilts in the direction of domesticity, while the word “wild” connotes the animals that will appear in the tale – not least the eponymous black cat, historically a symbol of bad luck in Western culture.
The fact that the narrator “neither expect[s] nor solicit[s] belief” suggests that his story – or at least certain elements of it – might carry an uncanny or outrageous aspect; why else would a reader be in a position to disbelieve a self-described “homely” narrative? True, the narrator may be a liar, but there is little in Poe’s approach, here or in the balance of the story, that would indicate unreliability. A narrator on death row has nothing left to lose, so what is the point in prevaricating, especially in an attempt to unburden himself of guilt over his crimes? As the story progresses, the narrator is clear about his own moral failings and his dipsomania; though alcohol may lead to exaggeration or a misapprehension of cause and effect, the basic events of the narrative can be understood as stable and, however weird they may be, believable.
Where a reader’s belief is concerned, the second sentence underscores the narrator’s hesitancy, making explicit the fact that his story’s content is so outré that they comprise “a case where [his] very senses reject their own evidence.” This man, who has lived the story he is about to unfurl, confesses right at the start that it is so bizarre his own senses rail back in stupefaction, unwilling to countenance what they know to be true. “[M]ad I am not,” the narrator assures us, and this may or may not be the case. Though his attempt to “unburthen [his] soul” – the story, in other words, is a confession – leaves us at the very least convinced that the actions described in the tale have a basis in reality.
Complicating this is the narrator’s alcoholism – a condition that Poe himself suffered intensely. The narrator blames “the instrumentality of the Fiend Intemperance” for a “radical alteration” in his “general temperament and character”; this alteration turns him from a sanguine, gentle figure into a man prone to violent rages and an alcoholic’s oversensitivity to slights or perceived wrongs. After returning home from a bout of drinking, the narrator “fancied that the cat avoided [his] presence,” the precipitating factor for the narrator plucking out the poor animal’s eye. This the narrator downplays as Pluto beginning “to experience the effects of [his] ill temper,” such that when he partially blinds the cat, the moment is all the more horrifying for the reader’s utter unpreparedness.
It is perhaps not unwarranted to note that all of the above occurs in the first two pages of a ten-page story; the first 20% of the tale lays the linguistic, tonal, and situational groundwork for everything that follows. Poe’s single effect – that of steadily mounting terror arising out of a largely familiar domestic scenario rendered uncanny by the destabilizing properties of alcohol – is apparent from the very outset. It is this effect that determines everything that follows, from the escalating violence – the wife’s murder is one of the most shocking and memorable moments in the canon of horror fiction – to the justly celebrated ending. The introduction of Pluto’s doppelgänger (two of them, if one includes the mysterious mark on a wall the narrator discovers after his house burns almost to the ground, a mark that also foreshadows the story’s conclusion) adds an additional uncanny element to a tale already steeped in eeriness.
“The Black Cat” is not only one of the greatest horror stories ever written. It is also a pristine example of internal integrity in the short fiction form – an influential and exemplary template for countless writers who have followed.