How does Stephen King Incorporate in His Works Distinct Elements from Poe's Short Stories and Poems?
Stephen King, the master of horror has written over 200 short stories and 78 novels. He has been honing his art for a long time. In an interview in 2009, he stated that he has been writing since the age of 16.
Nominated 279 times for different awards in the literature genre, King has won 107 awards for his novels and short stories, and this is only taking into consideration major awards. Some of his most significant awards include the Bram Stoker Awards and World Fantasy Awards.
Stephen King, like other writers, has his favorite authors that he grew up reading. Some of them made their way into his works, unconsciously or by King's own decision. A particularly known American author that King has among his favorites and has undoubtedly influenced his stories is the famous Gothic Literary Pioneer, Edgar Allan Poe.
Edgar Allan Poe is a known American poet and novelist, but he also had his fair share of writing short stories. Some of the short stories from Poe that King takes into consideration thematically wise or specific details he enjoys for his short story "Dolan's Cadillac", "The Cask of Amontillado" and the poem "The Raven". As per his masterpiece "The Shining" he has been inspired by Poe's short stories: "The Masque of the Red Death”, “The Fall of the House of Usher” and "The Black Cat".
Now that you know all of the stories we will encounter below before you go on reading the rest, be advised, spoiler alert.
Dolan's Cadillac, a short story birthed by the mind of King and the mixture of certain elements from "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Raven"
The main character in Dolan's Cadillac, Robinson, only known by his surname, is also the narrator. Robinson murders Dolan, a wealthy crime boss. The reason for the murder is simple, as Dolan had killed Robinson's wife, to stop her from testifying against him. Just like in the Cask of Amontillado, Montresor, the main character is the narrator. Montresor also commits the act of murder on another person, that person being Fortunato. In both stories, the narrator is the murderer and he describes to us, the reader how he plans to commit this crime.
Robinson casually discovers the route that Dolan takes to travel to Vegas in his Cadillac. He makes a hard sacrifice, by working one summer with a road paving crew, to learn how to operate heavy machinery so he can enact his plan. On the 4th of July, Robinson gets his revenge on Dolan by making his Cadillac fall into the hole and dropping cement on top of it, burying him alive.
On the other side, Montresor meets Fortunato at a party, while Fortunato was quite inebriated by that point. Montresor lures him inside the catacombs with the promise of a good bottle of wine. Or rather, he claims he might have a good bottle of Amontillado, a Spanish wine. In the end, Montresor shackles Fortunato inside a recess and walls him inside (Figure 1).
The two victims here perish under their murderer's traps. They are both killed by being buried alive, with the nature of the murder being similar. Fortunato and Dolan are both encouraged by their killers, to fall into the traps by their own volition, simply making sure all goes the way they have planned it.
As we mentioned above, the motive for these murders seems pretty obvious. It is the dish best served cold, revenge, which King uses as a quotation (Nightmares&Dreamscapes, Page 13) at the start of his story.
" Revenge is a dish best eaten cold."
And in Poe's story, Montresor's obsession with Fortunato is solely based on revenge.
Although, both the narrators are murderers, they differentiate between one another in their motives. Robinson wants to take revenge for his wife's unjust murder, Montresor sounds like a scrambling madman, by just vaguely telling us that Fortunato has caused him many injuries.
King makes us more inclined to justify Robinsons' actions, as to what Montresor does to Fortunato. The motive of love helps us feel more in Robinson's shoes, rather than Montresor, who is portrayed as an unstable individual ready to snap.
Also, another difference between the two stories is the atmosphere surrounding them. In the Cask of Amontillado, there is a party occurring before Montresor and Fortunato move into the catacombs, from a full of energy and lively party to the dark and moldy smell of death. Meanwhile, in Dolan's Cadillac, the atmosphere is kept tense till the end of the story, always staying in the realm of one emotion, that of an anxious air but steady enough to continue building up to the exhilaration moment.
In The Raven, the narrator is the main character, just like in Dolan's Cadillac and in The Cask of Amontillado. But the student, in The Raven, is not a murderer, he is mourning the loss of his beloved.
Both the student and Robinson share the same devotion, a sick twisted feeling caught between trying to forget and want to remember. They mourn for the loss of their loved ones.
Another literary device, an incessant voice that pushes their grief is the raven who constantly croaks "Nevermore" for the student (Figure 2). Meanwhile, Robinson's grief is expressed through Elizabeth, playing the role of the raven, but not just croaking the word "Nevermore". She gives him courage and words of determination so that he can push through every pain and exhaustion to get Dolan trapped.
The Raven and Dolan's Cadillac also share some elements, but they also have their differences.
In Poe's poem, some of the themes rely on classical myths and folklore. The raven is thought to be taken from Norse mythology, as Odin, has two ravens, that tell him everything. They are Huggin and Munnin, which mean Thought and Memory. The bust of the statue, where the student cries is alluded to be Athena. Also, in a certain moment, where the boy curses out the raven
"Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!"
Implying that he is a creature of death because Plutonian shores mean the river Styx, which in Greek mythology was where the dead resided.
King does not use in Dolan's Cadillac any folkloric references or myths. He relies on the modern-day life of monotone, ordinary people. The purpose being, to show that people are evil and twisted beings and for this, he uses the supernatural as a medium.
Elizabeth's voice, in the end, after Dolan is dead, ceases to be. That relieves Robinson, who was starting to feel plagued and haunted by his wife's voice, telling him, asking him to do all those uncharacteristic things for him.
The raven also disappears at the end of Poe's poem, but the student still feels distraught over his loss.
The Raven and Dolan's Cadillac also differ in motives, as the first one is an elegiac poem dedicated to the student's love, whereas King's short story is driven by revenge and Robinson finally finding some inner peace.
Poe is a poet at heart who likes to choose words that rhyme and his short stories all have a serene musicality to them, despite what happens. As per the language chosen, King uses simplistic jargon like vocabulary, to show normal people in different situations. The best example being this excerpt from the story:
" I leaned over the hole. 'Dolan?' No answer. 'Scream Dolan.' No answer at first - then a series of harsh barks. Satisfactory! "
Robinson is not satisfied with just killing him. He wants to break Dolan and break he does.
" 'Dolan.' No answer. He's killed himself, I thought and felt a sick - bitter disappointment. Killed himself somehow or died of fright. 'Dolan?' Laughter drifted up from the mound; bright, irrepressible, totally genuine laughter. I felt my flesh lift itself into large hard lumps. It was the laughter of a man whose mind has broken."
The Shining and the influences it carries from Masque of the Red Death, The Fall of the House of Usher, and The Black Cat.
In The Masque of Red Death, Prince Prospero is isolated in his palace. Prospero is not alone, as he has invited a lot of rich guests, to reside inside.
Jack, in The Shining, has taken the job of the hotel's caretaker for the winter offseason. He also is isolated, as snow piles up and nobody besides him, his wife, and child, Danny are inside the hotel.
The protagonists are both isolated by their own choice, one from the fear of death and the other, by the nature of his work.
Prince Prospero throws balls and orgies inside his magnificent palace, without a care in the world for his citizens outside. A plague has been eating them alive, but Prospero does not care about anything besides his own safety and his fun.
Jack focuses on maintaining the hotel and trying to write but is eventually overcome by his bout with alcoholism and the influence of the hotel. He tries to murder his family, just like the former hotel manager did.
Both characters are the romantic antihero archetype, cynical, clearly flawed, and with no remorse for bad actions.
Also, these two characters are doomed by their own choices, which no matter how unfortunate are taken by them. They lead Prospero (Figure 3) and Jack towards their destruction, which means death.
In the Fall of the House of Usher, Poe gives us the description of a mansion torn down from time so much that it might as well be inhabited by only ghosts.
The Overlook Hotel in The Shining has a rich history of death, ranging from mob hits to suicides. That would make it a perfect haunted place, where spirits can be found.
These buildings play an essential role in the stories, especially in setting the theme. Also, both the Overlook Hotel and House Usher are similar in their huge size, lack any symmetry, and are full of dark corridors and creepy hallways, which give an unsettling feeling of claustrophobia.
However, the Overlook Hotel isolates Jack from the outside world driving him insane, which is not the same for Prospero in the Masque of The Red Death, as he surrounded himself with guests.
Roderick Usher is in a state of fugue mind, and as his mind shatters and his condition worsens, the house gets darker and decays more.
Jack's mental state deteriorates as the Overlook Hotel, with its evil presence latches onto his mind by driving him insane.
Both protagonists here at the end are in a shaken mental state and not capable of making any decisions.
At the end of the Fall of the House of Usher, Madeline, Roderick's sister appears and enacts her revenge on Roderick. Although it is not very clear in the story, it is thought that Roderick with his agreement had Madeline's body entombed, dead or alive (Figure 4).
Jack tries to kill his family but only succeeds in ending his own life.
The protagonists die for the motives of sin and trying or succeeding to commit murder.
As Roderick dies, the Usher house also goes down, as it was being held by his delusions.
In The Shining, Jack accidentally destroys the Overlook Hotel by exploding the boiler room. He was trying to murder his family, under the hotel's spirits influence.
Both buildings are destroyed with the protagonist's deaths as they only exist, by Roderick and Jack's projections. Their minds keep those old nasty buildings tall and strong. As soon as the connection is severed, so are their foundations shattered.
In The Black Cat, the protagonist kills his wife's pet, a poor black cat, the subject of his unhappiness (Figure 5). He redirects his anger towards the feline and murders it without remorse, which shows at the moment the police enter his house and they have no reason to suspect him. When the truth is that he is an utter psychopath. It is believed that Poe makes his character direct the anger and resentment for his wife, towards her pet.
Jack Torrance is a failed writer, plagued by alcoholism and feeling sorry for himself, which results in anger misplacement towards his family. Although, in his case, his anger is amplified by the Overlook Hotel and its spirits.
The protagonist in The Black Cat, as well as Jack Torrance in The Shining, are alcoholics, which leads to their anger being projected from their actual source to another matter that irritates them. Their mental state deteriorates from alcohol abuse and leads them to their demise.
Conclusion of the analysis
As it can clearly be seen above, they are many similarities to Dolan's Cadillac with The Raven and The Cask of Amontillado, and also to The Shining with The Masque of The Red Death, The Fall of the House of Usher, and The Black Cat. At the beginning of The Shining the sentence:
“The Red Death held sway over all!”
is taken straight from Poe's short story The Masque of The Red Death. That is a direct quote as King is inspired by Poe's brilliance. It is in no way or form, a steal as some people may consider. King is in awe of Poe's ability to construct short masterpieces with those poetic-sounding words. He just aims to show his own vision, while also making a tribute to a great American writer, like Poe was. Poe's brilliance and importance were only recognized after his death.
King uses Poe's short stories to solidify his own work. The reader has a feeling deep inside their stomach, that they have seen, read, or heard somewhere similar characteristics or actions of protagonists, but they can not just be sure. Not until they read between the lines and the similarities and parallelisms become clear.
Although King uses many elements from Poe's works, he aims to deepen his stories and give an enjoyable experience to his readers, to scare them but also to pay tribute to one of the most important writers of the 19th century. King achieves his goal and does exemplary work of portraying his own story while encapsulating Poe's themes and elements.
Sources of the featured image:
Image 1 :Edgar Allan Poe. (2017, October 14). [Illustration]. https://theravenreport.com/2017/10/14/was-poes-death-the-greatest-of-all-his-mysteries/
Image 2: Thubakabra, T. (2019, January 24). Stephen King [Pencil Drawing Art]. https://www.deviantart.com/thubakabra/art/Stephen-King-Pencil-Drawing-Art-782529872
Edgar Allan Poe - Legacy. (2012, February 15). Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Edgar-Allan-Poe/Legacy
Stephen King | The Author. (2000, April 12). Https://Stephenking.Com/the-Author/. https://stephenking.com/the-author/
King, S. K. (2012). Nightmares and Dreamscapes (1st ed., Vol. 1). Hodder&Stoughton.
Poe, E. A. P. (2009). The Collected Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (1st ed., Vol. 1). Wordsworth.
Buday, M. B. (2015, July). From One Master of Horror to Another: Tracing Poe’s Influence in Stephen King’s The Shining (No. 1). Prague Journal of English Studies. https://doi.org/10.1515/pjes-2015-0003