The scary novel
The Gothic novel is a new kind of fiction that flourished in literature at the end of the 18th century in Great Britain. It represents a reaction against both Defoe's and Richardson's "rationalistic" novels and Enlightenment, which gave rise to industrialization. They were seen as a form of exploitation, which didn't bear in mind the individual’s feelings.
The Gothic novels were always set in mysterious and terrifying places, such as isolated castles, mysterious abbeys and convents with hidden passages, dungeons and secret rooms. Darkness is a key element for creating a mysterious, gloomy atmosphere; catholic countries are often the setting of the most terrible crimes, due to Protestant prejudices against Catholicism. In fact, the churches are the major places in which the reader could detect the presence of evil forces, frequently embodied by an important male character (for example Ambrosio, the cruel protagonist of The Monk by Matthew Lewis). On the contrary, the female characters are always angelical women in danger of the villain’s cruelty (always in The Monk Ambrosio rapes Antonia, an innocent girl).
All the characters are also dominated by exaggerated reactions caused mainly by obscurity, uncertainty and horror that marked the different stories, and often by the presence of supernatural beings (like vampires, monsters and ghosts). The hero is a sensitive man who saves a heroine that is usually stricken with both unreal terrors and persecuted by a villain. The latter is the embodiment of evil, either by his own fall from grace, or by some implicit malevolence. He is usually a satanic, terrifying male character who is a victim of his negative impulses.
The terrible and disturbing places, the characters suffering from disorders of various kinds, that will take them very often to insanity, and the presence of ghost, vampires, monsters, are the elements that characterize also the King’s novels. For example, corridors, rooms, and lounges of the famous Overlook Hotel, protagonist of King’s bestseller The Shining (1977), are the home of numerous and disturbing presences that actually are not bad in itself, but can induce negativity in people who already have a predisposition to the evil. Predisposition that seems to have just the character of Jack Torrance, a character with a past not quite clear, suffering from alcohol problems, which, together with the '"encouragement" of ghosts, will lead to wanting to kill his wife Wendy and son Danny.
The Gothic novels weren’t a great success and perhaps for this reason, they had a short life. In fact, only three novels were to become famous, The castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole, Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelly and Dracula (1884) by Brom Starker. On the other hand, they have greatly influenced other forms of literature. One author who had an enormous success was Edgar Allen Poe who went on to influence Stephen King.
Madness vs. Intelligence
"Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence - whether much that is glorious - whether all that is profound - does not spring from disease of thought - from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect." Eleonora (1850) by Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe, born Edgar Poe on 19th January 1809 and dead on 7th October 1849, was an American author, poet, editor, and literary critic, considered part of the American Romantic Movement. Best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre, Poe was one of the earliest American practitioners of the short story and is generally considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre. He is further credited with contributing to the emerging genre of science fiction.
Poe's best known novels are Gothic, a genre he followed to appease the public taste. Many of his works are generally considered part of the dark romanticism genre, a literary reaction to transcendentalism, which Poe strongly disliked. In fact, his most recurring themes deal with questions of death, including its physical signs, the effects of decomposition, concerns of premature burial, the reanimation of the dead, and mourning.
The most important short story written by Edgar Allan Poe is undoubtedly The Fall of the House of Usher (1839), considered the best example of Poe's "totality", where every element and detail is related and relevant. This piece, along with The Masque of the Red Death (1842), were the tales from which Stephen King took inspiration just to write his famous novels, The Shining. Indeed, King’s story is part of the thriller and supernatural genre because he uses the concept of a building that has a consciousness (or soul), an idea already explored by the same Poe just in The Fall of the House of Usher.
The Fall of the House of Usher, so, shows Poe's ability to create an emotional tone in his tale, specifically feelings of fear, doom, and guilt. These emotions center on Roderick Usher who, like many Poe characters, suffers from an unnamed disease that inflames his hyperactive senses. The illness manifests physically but is based in Roderick's mental or even moral state. He is sick, it is suggested, because he expects to be sick based on his family's history of illness and is, therefore, essentially a hypochondriac. Similarly, he buries his sister alive because he expects to bury her alive, creating his own self-fulfilling prophecy.
A similar suggestion is present in the Stephen King’s novel. As said before, one of protagonist of The Shining, Jack Torrance, is an author and former teacher, who accepts a position as winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel in Colorado, where he moves with his wife Wendy and son Danny. He thinks this isolated place and "quiet" give him an opportunity to finish the book that he is writing. But the evil spirits, which inhabit the hotel, bribing him with his worst enemy where he is trying to escape, alcohol and deceiving him that the "true owner of the hotel", or the hotel itself, need him and his "ability" (in reality, the hotel does not desire anything but the "shine" of his son Danny), drive him crazy and force him to attempt to murder his family with a roque mallet. However, the little Danny also has some psychic ability called “shine” which he uses to try to protect Jack and the mother. At the end, Danny e Wendy manage to escape, but unfortunately, Jack regains his sanity too late and the hotel boiler explodes, killing him as well as destroying the hotel. The Jack’s instability can be found in many parts of the book; for example, in the chapter 2 “Boulder”, Wendy, talking with the son, says about the husband Jack: “Your daddy… sometimes he does things he's sorry for later. Sometimes he doesn't think the way he should. That doesn't happen very often, but sometimes it does."
So, the place, where the family Torrance moves, plays a key role for the outcome of the story. In the same way, family The House of Usher of the Poe’s story, itself doubly referring both to the actual structure and the family, plays a significant role in the story. It is the first "character" that the narrator introduces to the reader, presented with a humanized description: its windows are described as "eye-like" twice in the first paragraph. The fissure that develops in its side is symbolic of the decay of the Usher family and the house "dies" along with the two Usher siblings. This connection was emphasized in Roderick's poem "The Haunted Palace" which seems to be a direct reference to the house that foreshadows doom.
In The Masque of the Red Death (1842), instead, Poe describes the arrival of a tragic disease: cholera. The characters in this story are Prince Prospero and his guests, invited by him to his palace to try to escape the disease; but perhaps the most important protagonist is the mask of the Red Death. The Prince locks herself in his castle and orders barricades to be built in order to protect his palace and life, but this is not enough to save him.
The castle is thus an almost inaccessible place, and also with the description that is given of the seven rooms gives us the idea of an enclosed space, much like a maze. This is the same description that can be seen about the hotel in The Shining. The Overlook Hotel, in fact, is an isolated vacation spot during the summer, but during the winter months of closure, when all connections with neighboring cities are interrupted due to snow, it became a spooky and disturbing place, populated by ghosts and paranormal activity.
This macabre atmosphere, as in the castle of Poe’s tale, creates in the reader a feeling of panic and suffocation. Poe also, uses rapid sequences of adjectives all related to the sphere of the fantastic but at the same time he makes use of phrases coordinated between them and a very simple lexicon. Also, the narrator of the story is omniscient and narrates the events firsthand in the narrative. There isn’t a defined interlacement, but it corresponds perfectly with the fable, so much so that we can speak of a full parallelism.
The Poe’s piece is, also, divided into three main sequences: the first serves to explain to the reader the time when the story takes place, and to clarify what is happening in the story. The second part contains the description of the abbey and its inhabitants, while in the third and final sequence, the more narrative, we find the unfolding of the whole story: the arrival of death and its consequences.
But, the most disturbing element in The Masque oh the Red Death is undoubtedly the setting. The seven rooms, in fact, are full of chaos and colors, but the last is empty, the only one that conveys a sense of terror to diners; it is covered by black curtains, like death, the windows are a blood red, and on the wall was leaning a grandfather clock that marked the hours with a terrifying noise that disconcerts partygoers.
The clock is also described with human characteristics: lungs of bronze clock and voice.. So much so that Poe says: “It was in this apartment, also, that there stood against the western wall, a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to hearken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused revery or meditation. But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly; the musicians looked at each other and smiled as if at their own nervousness and folly, and made whispering vows, each to the other, that the next chiming of the clock should produce in them no similar emotion; and then, after the lapse of sixty minutes (which embrace three thousand and six hundred seconds of the Time that flies), there came yet another chiming of the clock, and then were the same disconcert and tremulousness and meditation as before. But, in spite of these things, it was a gay and magnificent revel.” The Masque of the Red Death (1842)
Therefore, all this description gives us the idea of approaching death: the clock marks the minutes left before the end of life. This is also one of the citations at the beginning of The Shining and the same emblematic figure of the clock is present in the novel: in fact, in chapter 44, when Jack becomes involved and goes to the party "organized" by strange presences who live the hotel, King says: "There was a clock under a glass dome, flanked by two carved ivory elephants. Its hands stood at a minute to midnight. He gazed at it blearily. Had this been what Grady wanted him to see? He turned around to ask, but Grady had left him. Halfway through "Ticket to Ride," the band wound up in a brassy flourish. «The hour is at hand!» Horace Derwent proclaimed. «Midnight! Unmask! Unmask» He tried to turn again, to see what famous faces were hidden beneath the glitter and paint and masks, but he was frozen now, unable to look away from the clock — its hands had come together and pointed straight up. «Unmask! Unmask!» the chant went up. The clock began to chime delicately.” The Shining (1977)
The link between King and the father of all horrors stories, Edgar Allan Poe, is therefore loud and clear. But contrary to his Master to which, however, King, preferring to follow the way of the way psychological, makes continual and explicit references in "The Shining". Poe, influenced by the Gothic genre, Ossianic poetry and the epigones, as Lovecraft, centers on the story or novella. The same mythical The Masque of the Red Death, which inspired generations of authors and four films, is a tale of a handful of pages is the best example of Poe’s work. It clearly shows Poe’s love of playing with his readers fears and emotions.