This essay will explore the ways Poe utilizes specific stylistic techniques and characterisation within his short stories of Ligeia and The Fall of the House of Usher to construct a state of suspense for the reader. The notion of suspense in this essay is to be defined as a ‘state of being suspended or kept undetermined’. The use of suspense in this manner attempts to immediately encapsulate a reader’s attention throughout the entire text. Poe manipulates this concept of suspense in collaboration with his short stories, described by Buranelli as a ‘tissue of nightmares’, within the Gothic genre. This essay will focus upon the characterisation of the protagonist’s obsession, and primarily the stylistic techniques of the sense of impending doom, the intertwining of what is reality or imagination, and the exploitation of terror by Poe to create suspense for a reader.
From the onset of The Fall of the House of Usher Poe explicitly conveys the sense of impending doom throughout the narrative as a stylistic technique to create suspense. The pensive descriptions by the unnamed narrator reinforce the idea that he is destined for disaster, as the narrator frequently describes that an ‘insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit’. This stylistic technique of foreshadowing used by Poe further creates a melancholy ‘atmosphere of sorrow’ that unambiguously links to the Gothic genre. Consequently, this aura created by Poe, heightens the sense of unease around the unnamed narrator who has an ‘intolerable agitation of soul’, and ‘nervousness’, linked to his demeanour. Due to this foreshadowing through the narrators emotions to predict a catastrophic ending, Poe teases the reader with the spine-chilling effect of ‘spiralling intensification’ of the reader’s emotions in the microcosm of his short story. It is due to this escalating darkness within the narrative that Kaplan argues Poe can ‘engender abnormal states of mind’ to capture the sense of forthcoming doom that his protagonist is predestined for.
It is important to further consider the sense of impending doom triggered by the elements of the setting in Ligeia. Contrastingly to The Fall of the House of Usher, the sense of impending doom in Ligeia is portrayed through the intricate descriptions of the bedroom chamber. This is depicted by the ‘phantasmagoric influences’, and ‘uneasy vitality’, in the domineering setting which generates a strong feeling of suspense that is both simultaneously thrilling, and petrifying, for a reader. The repetition of the adjective ‘phantasmagoric’ within both short stories further highlights the strong sense of illusion that Poe accentuates with the unreliable narrator he inaugurates in both stories. It is this sense of uncertainty, through ‘phantasmagoric’ illusions in Ligeia that the fear of impending doom comes through to the reader, thus creating a strong feeling of suspense.
One of the most prominent features of Ligeia is the way Poe characterises the unnamed narrator with the personality trait of obsession. The constant ‘flashes’ of images, and thoughts, internally in the protagonist’s psychosis highlight his evident obsession with Ligeia, and what Gerald-Kennedy describes as a ‘fixation with dying women’ in Poe’s works. The language Poe links with the narrator in his portrayals of Ligeia involve the repeated fanatical descriptions of ‘wild visions’, ‘no ordinary passion’, and ‘intense excitement’ on this subject. Poe uses unnerving language to associate the narrator with lunacy about Ligeia, which is vividly shown with the accumulation of exclamative sentences. As he describes, ‘the eyes of Ligeia!’, and ‘How for long hours have I pondered upon it!’, it unequivocally highlights a terrifying obsession and excitement about Ligeia which all come from his internalised thoughts and infatuation about her. Poe accordingly creates elements of monomania with the characterisation of the narrator as he is permanently fixated upon Ligeia, however we may be drawn to sympathise with the narrator in terms of his longing for a woman whom he loves. This means that, although he may be seen as psychotic and thwarted with desire, this could be interpreted as unrequited love for Ligeia that has driven him to this point of insanity. As Poe, himself, was interested in the psychology of human beings, the ‘psychological penetration’ given through the obsessive narrative does ultimately terrifies the reader, which consequently creates suspense, combined with thrill, through fear.
In both The Fall of the House of Usher, and Ligeia, Poe intertwines the real, and imagined, together as a stylistic technique in order to develop the feeling of uncertainty in terms of suspense within the texts. Specifically with Ligeia, the ‘incipient madness’ of the narration is thwarted by the influence of ‘opium dreams’ that result in an inability to determine what is real, or what is imagined. This ‘opium engendered’ imagination, that fuels the narrative, gives a sense of unpredictability on behalf of the narrator, as he is thwarted with images of Ligeia. This means that the description of the indefinite, wavy simile of Ligeia where she ‘came and departed like a shadow’, or the metaphorical language associated with her eyes that had a ‘secret of their expression’ do not give a sense of conviction about her physical appearance or presence. Notably, there is a strong atmosphere of the Gothic genre to create uncertainty within the simile of Ligeia where she ‘came and departed like a shadow’. Due to the peripheral nature of the ‘shadow’, which intensifies the nature of blurring reality and subsequently creates uncertainty for the narrator, Ligeia is depicted as being reduced from a whole woman to a moving shadow. It is these ‘episodes of near-death states of dreamlike intensity’ that Poe entwines into the stylistic technique of blurring the real, and imagined, together in order to create suspense for the reader.
Contrastingly, in The Fall of the House of Usher, Poe uses the real and imagined in order to develop a sense of thrill within the setting of the narrative. Through this blood-curdling element of the Gothic text would transpire through to a reader to engender doubt, and ambiguity, about what is reality or imagination in the text. The ‘phantasmagoric influence of the gloomy furniture’, compounded by the ‘vacant eye-like windows’, anthropomorphises the house which gives it a strong element of vitality in what initially appears to be a dreary setting. Understandably, this blurs the boundaries between the real and imagined in the text, as a reader would be firmly predisposed to the idea of a house being an inert object not something alive. The apparent ‘violent realism in his [Poe’s] macabre writings’ accordingly sparks life into intangible, and inanimate objects, thus obscuring the boundaries of reality, and imagination as a stylistic technique.
It is without question that the most indispensable stylistic technique used by Poe is embedding a thematic terror and fear within both texts that transpires through to the audience. With regard to The Fall of the House of Usher, the gruesome depiction of Madeline with ‘blood upon her white robes’ instantaneously creates a frightening image of gory blood upon a corpse that has risen from the dead. This terrifying image is further made fearful by the contrasting nature of the colours white and red. The connotations of the colour ‘white’ conveys purity and an uncorrupted nature of a character, whereas the colour ‘red’ in this circumstance emphasises violence and death. It is with two colours combined at the climax of the story, that the ‘emaciated frame’ of Madeline Usher heightens the suspense through the terror of her appearance.
Underpinning this nature of contrasting colours, and gore within the image of Madeline Usher, is the symbolic references to the supernatural to further develop a sense of terror and fear for the reader. The ‘superhuman energy of his [Roderick Usher’s] utterance’ is shown to be unnerving for the narrator as he is portrayed by muttering a satanic-style verse upon perceiving the corpse of Madeline. This eerie supernatural sensation that is created in the text is further enhanced by the ‘blood-red moon’ that surrounds this environment. It is this symbolic moon that may be representative for the hellish atmosphere which overshadows the entirety of the events that unfold in this haunted mansion. The premodification of the moon with the noun ‘blood-red’ reinforces a Gothic intensity, as characterising the moon with ‘blood-red’ instils the fear of damnation for a reader due to the supernatural appearance. Poe effectively creates a ‘hellish world of rootlessness’ in this story, which is what critics describe as a ‘spiritual sterility and eerie isolation’ when discussing Poe being a dark Romantic, who writes Gothic fiction with elements of the supernatural sublime like the ‘blood-red moon’. It is Poe’s amalgamation of the supernatural with the thematic use of terror and fear within the text that may ultimately cause the most concentrated amount of suspense within the tale of The Fall of the House of Usher due to it being a revolutionary style of Gothic writing in America in 1839.
Overall, the stylistic techniques and characterisation that Edgar Allan Poe incorporates into his short stories of Ligeia and The Fall of the House of Usher highlight that in order for him to create suspense, he must first develop thrilling and blood-curdling sensations through his writings. It is therefore evident that through characterising protagonists with obsession, and creating a fear of impending doom, entwining the real and imagined and exploiting terror as stylistic techniques, there is consequently great suspense and tension emanated from these short stories. However, it is without failure that the suspense Poe creates is wholly overshadowed by the Gothic genre, and elements of the sublime, which create multi-layered Gothic short stories that petrify a reader.