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Poe and the supernatural

Edgar Allan Poe was the most haunted gothic artist ever and his tormented life carved his literary course with the darkest colours. Nobody can deny that Poe, apart from his intoxications –literally or not-, was a literary genius who indulged in psychology as well as in the devices of horror such as grotesque, macabre and supernatural, creating his own school of thought in the Gothic genre. It is obvious even to a novice Poe’s reader that his most recurring themes deal with anxieties of death or the reanimation of the dead, boundaries between reality and supernatural, sources of horror and melancholy as well as limits between madness and sanity.

H.P. Lovecraft devoted an entire chapter of his book Supernatural Horror in Literature to Poe and divides his tales in four categories, with the last being the most important to the present research:

Poe's tales, of course, fall into several classes; some of which contain a purer essence of spiritual horror than others. The tales of logic and ratiocination,

forerunners of the modern detective story, are not to be included at all in weird literature; whilst certain others, probably influenced considerably by Hoffmann, possess an extravagance which relegates them to the borderline of the grotesque. Still a third group deal with abnormal psychology and monomania in such a way as to express terror but not weirdness. A substantial residuum, however, represent the literature of supernatural horror in its acutest form; and give their author a permanent and unassailable place as deity and fountainhead of all modern diabolic fiction

The supernatural element, truly, plays a significant role in Poe’s literature. It seems that, although it is a part of human’s psychology, in fact, the supernatural has some sort of uniqueness and autonomy, which means that sometimes sheds ‘light’ to a symbol, while some others absorb energy from that and, therefore, they are dynamic symbols that interact in the story. However there is a tendency that critics and readers tend to downgrade the supernatural element with their efforts to explain it in scientific terms or other rational theories. This is happening because Poe was keen on psychology and cosmology, while, at the same time his mind was absolutely ‘haunted’ by the apparitions of alcohol and his life completely tormented. So, is the supernatural element the result of the writer’s –and subsequently of the protagonist’s- wretched mental state or is it an external autonomous agent that many critics –and not only- falsely prefer to ignore?

Nobody denies that the connection between psychology and supernatural in Poe’s stories –but not only- is not easy to be untangled but there are many examples where the supernatural is ‘real’ and stands on its own in the story. For example, in the Black Cat supernatural is manifested as a result of the narrator’s haunted mind but during the plot the narrator -who is in jail, a few hours before his execution- admits that he acknowledges his addiction to alcohol, let alone his shifts of mood. The most bizarre thing is that the narrator separates the ramifications of his intoxication from those that occurred by a ‘demon’, while at the beginning of his narration he sounded not prone to superstition at all: “[…] my wife, who at heart was not a little tinctured with superstition, made frequent allusion to the ancient popular notion, which regarded all black cats as witches in disguise” [2].

Taking things from the beginning the narrator marries at a young age and introduces his wife to the domestic joys of owning pets. From his various pets his favourite was Pluto, a large, black cat. During his alcohol abuse phase the narrator takes to mistreating his pets and possibly his wife, but initially spares Pluto. One night, convinced that Pluto was avoiding him, he charges against him but soon his anger turns into demonic fury that results in brutally gouging out the cat’s eye. The next day in a moment of perverseness he hangs Pluto on the limb of a tree. Mysteriously, that very night, his house catches fire, forcing the narrator, his wife and their servant to flee to save their life. But the next day, the narrator returns to the ruins and finds the impression of a gigantic cat with a rope around its neck imprinted on the single wall that survived the fire. Up to that point the narrator is shocked by the image but he finds a rational explanation and he does not realize the connection of the two events, although he admits that his addiction drives him mad sometimes.

Some time later, a new cat appears identical to Pluto with one exception, a white spot on its chest, and becomes part of the household. Still the narrator attempts to rationalize it as a mere coincidence and soon enough he goes through another murderous phase, which comes to its peek when the cat’s marking takes the shape of the gallows. Hatred drives him to pick up an axe to kill the cat, but his wife who loved the cat, attempts to defend the animal and finds tragic death while the cat flees. The protagonist now tries to conceal the ‘evidence’ and entombs his wife into the wall of the basement. For four days he enjoys his excellent craftsmanship until the police come for investigation. For the moment, they seem convinced for his innocence but, in a fit of pride and stupidity that he managed to fool them, he taps on the wall…and in response a loud shriek is heard. It was the cat heard from the tomb! [3]

At the beginning the reader is almost convinced that the supernatural element is artificial, that is to say that is a product of a wretched mind, but, at the end, when the cat reveals itself immured in the wall, the supernatural element appears completely real. It is manifested as a Providence that judges and punishes the guilty narrator for his abhorred crimes. The cat, like a revenant, returns from the grave to terrorize the protagonist until it takes its revenge for the tragic events. But, going beyond the obvious, it seems that the course of the events was somehow predetermined and that the symbols have foretold the upcoming ending. In Cat in myth and magic says that “the cat, because of her unique position in symbolism as the representative of Hecate, goddess of Death, is, as we might expect, a widely respected omen of approaching mortality” (192). Furthermore, the cat’s name was Pluto, which is the name of the God of Underworld who was also known as Hades, a name for the underworld itself. According to Plato, mentions in Wikipedia, “Pluto was ‘an agent in th[e] beneficent cycle of death and rebirth’ meriting worship under the name of Plouton, a giver of spiritual wealth”[5]. So, symbolically the narrator had an eye upon him that watched his actions and was ready to judge them according to Providence that governs all humanity. Being immoral the scales, it is natural, according to the unwritten ethical values of cosmos, tilted towards Death. The action of removing the cat’s eye was a foolish attempt of the narrator to fool Death himself; to mislead him, to make him unable to see his moral degradation. Furthermore, the hanging of the cat symbolizes the utopian dream in a negative way while also, the swing between the two worlds [6]. The imprint of the cat on the wall, after the fire, in “Christianity, of course, identified the warning feline apparitions so often seen by the dying, with the devil” but, in general “modern stories of warning cats very often suggest that the messenger is of unearthly origin. It would seem as if the lowly familiar form of the household pet was selected for the grim office of Death’s ambassador so that the information might be conveyed to the affected man as gently and unalarmingly as possible”, says Howey Oldfield in his book The Cat in myth and magic [7]. So, for these supernatural reasons, the second cat appears, as a reminder that the god of Underworld still watches him and, ironically, a declaration that there is no second chance; his fate is now sealed.

Returning back to the concrete world, the reader realizes that the narrator seems to be aware of his wild and incredible nature of his story and attempts to separate his deteriorating mental state from the actual events. He confesses his addiction to alcohol and at the same time the cat acts as an external agent that affects the dynamics of the plot. Like the narrator’s shifts of mood, the plot twists balancing between the rational and the irrational as well as the real and the supernatural.

Likewise, in the Fall of the House of Usher, Poe entwines the supernatural element with the gloomy atmosphere of the house that influences the Usher’s mood. From the one hand, the house is the utmost supernatural element of the story that takes ‘breath’ from the family, making the inhabitants to ‘wither’, like absorbing their energy; while on the other hand, the house functions as a symbol, that derives energy from the Usher’s in order to parasite with them. Roderick probably suffers from hypochondria and hyperesthesia, while his sister Madeline is precisely cataleptic, but nothing it is certain. Apart from their diseases and the characters’ mental state because of these, there is also, undeniable, the supernatural element that it is obvious to the narrator, a probably sane person.

Initially, the narrator arrives at the house of his friend, Roderick Usher, who is complaining of an illness and asks for his help. A few days later, Roderick announces to him that his sister, Madeline, is dead, but before her permanent burial it is crucial to be entombed for two weeks in a family vault in the basement of the house. So, they both put the body in the tomb, and the narrator notices that Madeline has a rosy colour in her cheeks. From that moment, Roderick’s situation becomes worse and he seems agitated even more and more, but except from Roderick, also, the narrator perceives a few mysterious incidents in the house. So, one night, while they are reading the book Vigils for the Dead at the Second Church of Mainz , a book which by the way was also used “to ward off vampires” [8]; strange noises are heard from the basement, and Roderick exclaims that his sister is still alive, and he knew it! Suddenly, the door is opened and Madeline appears; “there [is] blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame” [9]. She falls “heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated”[10], while the narrator, abhorred and shocked, runs out the house. So far, the narration seems to be conceived via the psychological analysis of the characters but, at the final scene, when the narrator flees and the House of Usher breaks in two with the fragments sinking into the tarn; it proves that the ex-latent supernatural element is now ‘real’.

A good thing with supernatural is the fact that there is no logical explanation in order to prove it. So, in the House of Usher, the only rational explanation that the supernatural did not exist is the possibility that the narrator was insane but, in my opinion, nothing like that was true, apart from the fact that his mood was influenced by what he saw in the House. On the contrary, Poe believed that the dead had the power to rule the living, not with necessary cruel intentions but as result of their entrapment between the two worlds; and drive them insane. In that story, it is obvious that there is a lineage –now in decline- that influences the inhabitants not only psychologically but, also, metaphysically. At the end of the day, as likely it is the scientific explanation, so it is the supernatural one; thus for that reason neither explanation should be excluded.

Another point of view, suggests that what ‘haunted’ the House was not the dead but the undead, commonly known as vampires. For example how could Madeline escape from a –probably- sealed coffin and how could she open the door to her death chamber? How could she confront her brother, when so many days she was lying in a coffin without water, food and air? Benjamin Fisher in The Cambridge Campanion to Edgar Allan Poe replies to the obvious:

The answer is actually simple: Madeline is a vampire, or, rather, she is a

vampire figure adroitly refashioned by Poe to symbolize psycho-physical

forces that relate her to Roderick, to their house and to the narrator.Vampires

exist in a state between life and death, so they are often called the undead.

They are capable of surviving long spans of time without imbibing their ascribed

nourishment, blood from live humans. During such interval they may

all their strength intact. Vampires are also credited with preying first on their

family members and other loved ones, then moving out to widen the circle of

their victims [11].

The book that Roderick and the narrator were reading is truly, quite apocalyptic concerning Roderick’s dilemmas for his sister’s condition. Precisely, “Roderick was reluctant to perform a ritual killing that would free her from vampire taint, was reluctant, too, to bury her in a remote cemetery, where grave robbers could exhume the corpse for medical purposes”[12], so he was trying to find another ‘emergency exit’ in order to save his sister from certain slaughter and, of course, himself.

Though we can never be sure how profound was Poe’s knowledge of vampirism, thus we are completely convinced that Poe was a great expert of mythology and lore. Truly, Madeline’s character represents many of the fundamental traits of vampirism, so it is another possibility that cannot be excluded, along with the psychosomatic disease and the residual haunting of an old relative.

Apart from the stories that supernatural element is entwined with psychology, there is another category in which supernatural entwines with the grotesque. The Masque of red Death is one of those stories and in it Poe triumphs the victory of Death over the superficiality and ‘indisposition’ of human kind.

The story begins with the “happy and dauntless and sagacious”[13] Prince Prospero’s efforts to avoid a disease known as the Red Death –probably a plague- by hiding in his luxurious castellated abbey with one thousand other aristocrats, indifferent to the sufferings of the rest of the population. One night, Prospero holds a masquerade ball within the six rooms of his abbey -each decorated and illuminated in a specific color- in order to entertain hisgay company. Although his guests were entertained within the six rooms, there was a seventh room which was decorated in black and is illuminated by a bloody red light. In that room there was, also a large ebony clock that ominously tolls at each hour, creating a chilling effect to the attendees. In the midnight the Prince notices a dark figure dressed in a funeral shroud, with a mask that resembles a corpse. Quite insulted, the Prince demanded an explanation for that despicable disguise as well as the identity of the insulter so that they can hang him. None dared to approach the figure and Prospero decided to pursue him. As they reach the seventh room, the guest faces the Prince and he falls dead. Immediately, his revellers remove the mask of the stranger, only to find an unearthly face; soon they realize that it was Red Death itself, and all of the nobles finally succumbs succumbes to Death’s calling for an agonizing ending [14].

Although, the story touches the theme of the aristocratic vanity, essentially, the story could be explained via universal symbolisms in which the abbey-castle symbolizes ‘the soul’ – a belief, also accepted by the Gothics- ‘decorated’ with many colours, while the invasion of the strange guest symbolizes the invasion of the dark forces to human soul. Death, finite quality of life and vulnerability are only some of the enemies that ‘conquer’ human soul; enemies that some people pretend they do not exist, misinterpreting prosperity with invincibility, ignoring also, the constant reminder (the ebony clock); the undertone incide each human that reminds us our mortality and weakness.

Beyond symbolism and judging the Masque from a metaphysical point of view, the supernatural peeks when the ebony clock tolls midnight and the grotesque and macabre guest appears with his abhorred costume, causing the death of every living soul just with a glance. Like in every other Poe’s horror story, the supernatural element is an external dynamic agent that is perceived by everyone while affects the plot and the characters’ fate. The ebony clock seems to foreshadow the guest’s appearance as well as to intensify the grave and ominous atmosphere of the whole narration, while its function stops when the ultimate mission was accomplished: “and the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay”[15].

These are only few of Poe’s horror stories with vivid supernatural element. Nobody can deny that supernatural exists in almost all his work more or less. A few exceptional examples of his supernatural stories are, also Ligeia, which describes a girl who has the ‘forbidden’ wisdom and after her death haunts her now drug-addict husband because of his second marriage; the Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, which has “an air of scientific accuracy that moves on into an increasingly weird conclusion, which seems to link with supernaturalism”[16]; MS found in a bottle that follows an unnamed narrator in a supernatural ship who faces many overwhelming natural and unnatural circumstances until his final death; and Metzengerstein, a story that introduces the theme of metempsychosis as well as the disastrous consequences that follow the unions between humans and non-humans. From that list they cannot be excluded the short yet lyrical Shadow – a parable and Silence – A fable which both share biblical language and mythological allusions. The first, Shadow – a parable, describes the historical critic Zoilus, from ancient Greece “that has fallen victim to the plague raging locally”. His mourners “drink repeatedly to soothe themselves, though the eventual arrival of Shadow frightens them”, also according to Cambridge Introduction to Edgar Allan Poe. The “Silence – A Fable” describes a vision of a baptismal rite by a demon, in which the narrator tries to repeat the demon’s words while he, the demon, increasingly dominates him via spellbinding [17].

So, it is profound that Poe does not use supernatural in one way and sometimes he seems that he does not care if the supernatural is ‘real’ or not. In his writing both elements of psychology and supernatural are so much entwined that an effort to understand what is real or ‘apparition’ perhaps ruins the atmosphere of the story. The fact is that in the same mystery was shrouded also his own life and especially his death. Poe was found by Joseph Walker on the streets of Baltimore where he took him to the hospital in a delirious state and in great distress. The writer was talking incoherently, repeatedly called out the name of the unknown “Reynolds” and he was wearing clothes that were not his own. Strangely enough, all medical records, including his death certificate, have been vanished, so the rumours have ‘veiled’ the real cause of his death. Of course, many people claimed that it was his alcoholism but the actual cause of death remains a mystery. Adding to the mystery surrounding his death, an unknown visitor, known as “Poe Toaster”, paid a visit to Poe’s grave annually beginning in 1949 until 2009. Every January 19th, at dawn, the visitor made a toast of cognac to the writer’s grave and left three roses [18].

This mysterious effect that is carved in the readers’ mind is the strongest element of Poe’s work and this makes him unique among every other gothic writer, European or American. Definitely Poe was the father of horror and uncanny, because he tied supernatural with human psychology and made their effects ‘accessible’ to every man



2. Poe, Edgar Allan. The Complete tales and poems of Edgar Allan Poe, Barnes and Noble, New York, 2007, p. 531

4. Howey, M. Oldfield. The cat in magic and myth, Dover Publications, 2003, p 192

6. Cirlot, Juan- Eduardo. Το λεξικό των συμβόλων, Κονιδάρη, Αθήνα, 1995, p. 312

7. Howey, M. Oldfield. The cat in magic and myth, Dover Publications, 2003, p.192

8.Fisher, F.Benjamin. The Cambridge Introduction to Edgar Allan Poe, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2008, p 90

9.Poe, Edgar Allan. The Complete tales and poems of Edgar Allan Poe, Barnes and Noble, New York, 2007, p. 313

10.Poe, Edgar Allan. The Complete tales and poems of Edgar Allan Poe, Barnes and Noble, New York, 2007, p. 313

11. Fisher, F.Benjamin. The Cambridge Introduction to Edgar Allan Poe, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2008, p. 89

12. Fisher, F.Benjamin. The Cambridge Introduction to Edgar Allan Poe, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2008, p 90

13.Poe,Edgar Allan. The Complete tales and poems of Edgar Allan Poe, Barnes and Noble, New York, 2007,p.438

15. Poe. Edgar Allan. The Complete tales and poems of Edgar Allan Poe, Barnes and Noble, New York, 2007,p.442

16.Fisher, F. Benjamin. The Cambridge Introduction to Edgar Allan Poe, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2008, p 72

17. Fisher, F. Benjamin. The Cambridge Introduction to Edgar Allan Poe, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2008, p 74

while, also gave a universal and instinctive meaning to horror, macabre and supernatural; moreover “the boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends and where the other begins?” [19]



  1. Fisher, F.Benjamin. The Cambridge Introduction to Edgar Allan Poe, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2008

  2. Howey, M. Oldfield. The cat in magic and myth, Dover Publications, 2003

4. Poe, Edgar Allan. The Complete tales and poems of Edgar Allan Poe, Barnes and Noble, New York, 2007

Foreign Bibliography:

  1. Cirlot, Juan- Eduardo. Το λεξικό των συμβόλων, Κονιδάρη, Αθήνα, 1995

(Cirlot, Juan –Eduardo. Diccionario de simbolos, Barcelona, 1992)

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