While Edgar Allan Poe is usually acknowledged as an early master of horror in fiction, it would be more accurate to say that he is a master of horror effect. One of the reasons Poe’s horror stories endure, in fact, is likely due to his emphasis, not on awful detail and violence, but on the mental and emotional states overtaking his narrators. It seems that Poe fully understands that real terror, like virtually all human sensations and feelings, is created and developed in the mind.
The thing is frightening, but the fear is actually created by the one confronting it. This reality then allows Poe to establish an ideal, psychological bridge between himself and his readers. It is the passivity of the horrifying experience that defines it, as horror itself is measured in terms of reaction to it. Consequently, it is a human awareness or vulnerability shared by all, and Poe narrators speak to the reader in an intimate way. He offers, not so much the vision of the nightmare, but the effect of the nightmare all his readers know too well. As will be discussed, Poe’s strategy of using the mind is very well reflected in Straub’s modern Ghost Story, which expands the force of the psychological even as it presents authentic terror.
The approach of the psychological is perfectly represented in Poe’s “The Black Cat,” and chiefly because the element of horror is wholly created by the narrator himself. This is in fact a strikingly modern story, in that the narrator balances his account with distance and perspective, even as he relates the evil he feels within himself and ultimately transfers it to the animal. Poe does not completely ignore the graphic; there are moments of vivid violence, as when the narrator buries an axe in the brain of his wife. Every episode, however, goes to more deeply penetrating his sick mind, so the psychological effects have far more impact than the graphic. For example, the reader is always enabled to identify with the narrator, as vile as his behavior is, because he confesses to understanding how perverse his actions are. He is disgusted by himself, which then places the evil apart from him and generates some understanding. Even when he is about to fool the police, the reader is conflicted, wanting him punished but understanding his feelings of relief and escape: “The glee at my heart was too strong to be restrained” (Poe). There is justice at the end, but the force of the horror remains in the reader’s awareness of what the mind can do, and how shame and guilt create terrors beyond any mere creature.
This same approach is more deftly carried out in Peter Straub’s novel, Ghost Story. As Straub has the luxury of novel length, he may more deeply explore how psychology, even as genuine evil exists outside of the main characters, generates a horror all its own. There is definitely real evil here, in the form of Alma, her various incarnations, and her crew of demons. Beneath all of this, however, is the mechanism of guilt within Ricky, Sears, John, and Lewis, who accidentally killed her as Eva Galli many years before. As the terror mounts and the entire town is victimized by the evil, this psychological shame both binds the old men together in resistance and fuels their fear.
In essence, and while it is never overtly said, the men understand a psychological reality known to Poe’s narrator; they created the current evil by inviting it in, in a sense. Poe’s narrator mutilates the cat while he is drunk and sets in motions his own doom, and Straub’s men also inadvertently bring on the horror overtaking them. Eva was evil then, but it is implied that the actions of the men actually empowered her, so they live with the knowledge that they are responsible for the terror occurring in the town and systematically killing them. There is defiance here because Straub’s characters are not insane or evil: “We should not let her split us up. If we go running in all directions she can get to us – destroy us” (Straub 474). What ultimately matters, however, is that Alma and all the other elements of evil are rendered far worse because, as with Poe’s narrator and the cats, there is an attachment between them and the heroes. This translates to Straub’s having taken the legacy of Poe into new ground. He expands the dimensions and adds layers of confusion to the guilt, but the essential foundation is the same. Edgar Allan Poe establishes that the mind is the true creator of horror in “The Black Cat,” and Peter Straub broadens the psychological force of this in Ghost Story.