Edgar Allan Poe, one the great masters of suspense, was born on January 19, 1809. He had a turbulent childhood. His father, David Poe, left the family early, and his mother, Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe, died when he was only three years old. Poe then went to live with John and Frances Allan. Despite his stormy youth and many setbacks, Edgar Allan Poe found his niche-writing. Poe would go on to become the “father of the detective story” and to write some of the most unforgettable horror stories. Some of Poe’s scariest short stories include The Pit and the Pendulum, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Masque of the Red Death, and Pit and the Pendulum” (1843)
He awakens to a room filled with nothing but darkness. He is afraid and alone in a Toledo prison cell awaiting an agonizing death. “He” is the unnamed narrator in The Pit and the Pendulum. The unnamed narrator has been sentenced to death during the infamous Spanish Inquisition. To the amusement of his captors, he is placed into a cell of torture.
The cell itself is to be used as a means of execution. There is a deadly pit in the middle of cell and a horrific pendulum that hangs from the top of the ceiling. By chance, the prisoner is saved from plunging to his death in the pit, and time seems to move painfully slow as the pendulum swings slowly, ever so slowly down toward the pounding heart of the narrator.
The Pit and the Pendulum is an exercise in horror for narrator and suspense for the reader. Poe succeeds in making the reader feel the same intense fear experienced by the prisoner as he waits for his impending death.
The Tell-Tale Heart (1843)
Poe allows the reader inside the mind of a madman in The Tell-Tale Heart. An unnamed narrator is plotting a murder-the murder of the elderly man that he lives with. Although the murderer claims to love the old man, he believes the old man’s eye is evil. So, the old man must be killed.
For seven nights, he goes to the old man’s bedchamber to kill him, but fortunately, for the old man, he is always asleep which prevents the murderer from killing him. However, on the eighth night, the old man is awake, and the deed is done. The murderer commits the perfect crime or so he thinks. The tell-tale beating of his own conscience gives the killer away.
The reader is forced along as the narrator plots and kills the old man. It is the cool calm with which the killer gives the details of the murder that makes this tale by Poe such an eerie horror.
Masque of the Red Death (1845)
The Masque of the Red Death is another one of Poe’s scariest short stories. It is based on the fear and horror of the Black Plague. In Poe’s story, his version of the disease is called the “Red Death” because its most defining characteristic was blood. Prince Prospero decides to outsmart death by locking his favorite lords and ladies inside his palace. No one is allowed in or out. After a time, the Prince decides to host a masquerade party to entertain himself and his quest. All is well until midnight.
At midnight, a mysterious stranger appears at the masquerade ball. The strange is dressed as the “Red Death”. Prince Prospero is insulted and demands that the stranger be apprehended, but the other guests are all afraid of the stranger. In the end, it is Prince Prospero who catches up with the ghastly figure. As soon as he does, the prince dies, and not long afterward, so do the other guests. The “Red Death” has found his way inside the palace. Poe’s meaning is not missed: No one can escape death.
Edgar Allan Poe was a master of horror and suspense. Of all his horrific short stories, the ones listed above are among the scariest.