The use of the unknown in literature is used to create an atmosphere of suspense that holds the reader in a state of unease. Two of the greatest American authors to do this were Poe and Lovecraft. To borrow a quote from Lovecraft, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” In their stories they use the unknown in an attempt to describe many things, such as scenery, objects, people, and monsters. The use of monsters in their literature echoes back to the primordial fear that is ingrained into us. According to, literaryterms.net, there are roughly three types of horror, “Gothic, Supernatural, and Non-Supernatural.” Poe focuses largely on supernatural horror, this is where the use of the unknown comes from. This being the case for Poe and Lovecraft, in their case, what exactly makes a monster a monster? In doing research on monsters a multitude of ideas came spilling forward and through no insignificant amount of reading and writing did it get narrowed down to roughly three main ideas. Almost as a whole only two of these ideas seem to be followed instead of all three in most cases, usually one is left out in order to add depth to their story. These ideas are:
1.) It’s pointless if the monster is able to die.
2.) It shouldn’t be able to communicate at all.
3.) It should never be clearly identifiable.
In Poe’s case of the unknown, Masque of the Red Death, serves as a solid entry. In it a group of people lock themselves away behind a wall to escape Death. Only to find that Death had followed them and taken a physical form. Poe describes Death saying:
“The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat. And yet all this might have been endured, if not approved, by the mad revellers around. But the mummer had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death. His vesture was dabbled in blood –and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.”
With the emergence of death, Poe manages to follow all three traits of a monster. He describes death, but doesn’t fully describe them at the same time. He eludes to the shape and what it is wearing but he never clearly identifies Death. Next, Death can’t die. Last, In the whole of the story death doesn’t say anything nor does it even try to communicate.
Though this isn’t entirely relatable to, Masque of the red Death, some of Poe’s work is early science fiction. According to Harry Poe, Chair of Faith and Culture at the University of Jackson, in an article called, Creating a Medium for Exploring the Implications of Science: Edgar Allan Poe and the First Science Fiction, “Edgar Allan Poe maintained an active interest in science throughout his career, and he was one of the first writers to take up Shelley’s new kind of story, though we have no evidence that he actually was influenced by her.” Edgar Allan Poe’s story, The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion, which uses a mix of supernatural and scientific horror much like that of Lovecraft who is known best for existential horror. In Poe’s Conversation of.. he uses scientific ideas in a conversation in a way to try and explain the end of the world.
In continuing, A. Poe derives most of his suspense with tone using the unknown and makes mention of it in, The Philosophy of Composition. In it he says, “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…”(Baym 738) Essentially what he is saying is that he focuses most on intent of what he want the reader to experience.
Moving on to a more modern author, one that almost seems as if they were inspired by Poe, H.P. Lovecraft is another well respected horror author. He is known for writing some of the strangest stories such as, the Call of Cthulhu. A piece he wrote comparable in length to Masque of the Red Death, is Dagon. To summarize, Dagon is about a man at sea who ends up beached with no other crew aboard his vessel. He recognizes he is on a landmass that no one knows about. While he is about he finds a creature that he cannot identify seeing it, he flees back to his ship. The way this relates to monsters and the unknown is that in both instances, individual human relevancy is a completely unrelated to the stories situation, Death cares for humanity the same way the creature in Dagon does. In Dagon, all three ideas of a monster are followed from the time it is introduced to the time it disappears. The monster isn’t known to be able to die, it doesn’t communicate at all, and the only bit of it was described. When describing the Creature Dagon says, “Grotesque beyond the imagination of a Poe or a Bulwer, they were damnably human in general outline despite webbed hands and feet, shockingly wide and flabby lips, glassy, bulging eyes, and other features less pleasant to recall” (Lovecraft, 76).
Now moving on to the differences between Poe and Lovecraft. For starters, they both use horror, but two slight variation on it. Poe covers supernatural horror, which as the name implies deals with aspects of the supernatural such as monsters. Lovecraft goes along similar lines of supernatural to create the category of cosmic horror which focuses on how minuscule humanity is in the grand scheme of things. Either way, humanity’s role in the whole of either case is minor in most cases, the story may follow humans such as the case with Fall of the House of Usher and the Call of Cthulhu, Whee the story isn’t about the humans but about the event or the monster.
In conclusion, the use of the unknown by Poe helped to form the basis for science fiction as well as the basis for Lovecraft’s cosmic horror. The main use of the unknown in their works is used for the monster which can be identified using three main ideas. The use of humanity in both genre’s has humanity at the middle showing in most cases how mortal we are, as well as how our ability to go against our base instincts truly are our own downfall.
Baym, Nina, and Robert S. Levine. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed., vol. 1, W.W. Norton & Company, 2012.
Lovecraft, Howard Phillips. “Dagon.” H.P. Lovecraft: Great Tales of Horror, Fall River Press, 2012, pp. 73–77.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Philosophy of Composition.” The Norton Anthology American Literature, 8th ed., vol. 1, Norton, 2012, pp. 737–745.
Poe, Harry Lee. “Reating a Medium for Exploring the Implications of Science: Edgar Allan Poe and the First Science Fiction.” Perspectives on Science & Christian Faith, vol. 69, no. 2, June 2017, pp. 76–86. Academic Search Complete [EBSCO].
The Masque of the Red Death, xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/poe/masque.html.