Creation of Atmosphere of Horror in The Black Cat

Posted on April 10, 2020

Horror is a unique genre of literature that aims at creating a sense of unease and causing disturbing imagery. Scaring off the reader with a word only is challenging, and a limited number of authors are skillful enough to do it. Edgar Allan Poe is one of those few whose creative work is referred to as the classics of horror fiction. Known as the master of horror and mystery, the American author specializes in short story writing, while his plots, characterization, and style engage with unsettling imagery and unease. For example, The Black Cat by Poe is a valuable acquisition of horror fiction in world literature. The story represents a death-row confession of the unknown prisoner, who is guilty of domestic violence and cold-blooded murder. In the short story, Poe creates an atmosphere of horror through multiple channels, including first-person narration, foreshadowing, setting, the use of old-fashioned language, and the appeal to the fear of the unknown.

The Black Cat is told from the first-person perspective, which makes the described horrors more convincing and shows the narrator’s change into the evil person in detail. From the very opening of the short story, the reader learns that the narrator – a death-row prisoner – is going to tell about “a series of mere household events,” which eventually end with the destruction of his personality and murder (Poe 1). The first-person narration only contributes to the moral shock and unease in the story because the audience dives into the murderer’s mind. Throughout the text, one follows how a kind and pet-loving person transforms into a cold-blooded killer. Familiarizing with the narrator, the reader learns about his “docility and humanity,” “tenderness of heart,” and fondness of animals (Poe 2). As the story unfolds, the audience gets to know about the narrator’s evil deeds. Although guilt and shame initially accompany the character, both disappear when the narrator’s dark side finally wins – when he kills and buries his wife without a sign of remorse.

Importantly, the first-person internal perspective shows the narrator’s evil nature instead of telling about it. This approach helps to reveal this repressed “I” gradually (Zhang and Huijuan 25). At first, the narrator tries to find out an explanation for his acts of violence towards his cats and wife. He accuses alcoholism, then “his evil side of psychological heart,” but never himself (Zhang and Huijuan 25). Nonetheless, the reader is confused that the narrator’s tone is boastful and full of pride, and this feeling only increases as the story progresses. Thanks to the first-person perspective, the reader catches the moment when the narrator reveals himself as the brutal and ruthless person – the future murderer – before the actual crime even takes place.
The first-person narration also adds to the veracity of the story and makes it more complicated, proving the narrator as not trustworthy. On the one hand, the first-person perspective makes the story reliable as the reader gets to know about the events from the witness. If Poe decided to shift his story to another character’s perspective, for example, the narrator’s wife, “it would only widen the distance between the story and the readers” (Zhang and Huijuan 25). What is more, this decision could harm the narration and change it aesthetically. The reader would not be able to witness the story through the eyes and mind of the person whom it affected initially.

On the other hand, the paradox of The Black Cat is that its narrator cannot be entirely trusted as it usually happens with first-person narration. As mentioned, the narrator is a prisoner, and he engages in biased statements and lies throughout the story. He also confesses in his unstable mental well-being, which makes the reader more suspicious. For example, the narrator says, “Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence” (Poe 1). The author makes the narration unstable on purpose because this move increases the reader’s suspense and intensifies the horror in the story. Distrusting the narrator, even though he speaks about a personal experience, the audience stays uncertain and doubtful of what happens next. The reader remains uncomfortable about the story, and the purpose of the horror genre is to cause feelings of fear, dread, repulsion, and terror in the audience.

In The Black Cat, Poe also relies on foreshadowing – the technique that helps him to promote a sense of horror regarding the following events. The idea of foreshadowing is to grant a reader with certain expectations – unease and dread, as in the case of Poe’s short stories. For instance, The Black Cat starts with the narrator’s statement about some horrible events that happened to him: “In their consequences, these events have terrified – have tortured – have destroyed me” (Poe 1). However, the narrator avoids saying what happened directly. Instead, he adds details like about the domestic or logical nature of the incident, which makes it seem more horrible and gruesome. Poe understands that calling things by their proper names, namely revealing the truth about domestic violence and murder, will never have the same impact on the audience if he holds the truth by using foreshadowing. In this scenario, suspense helps to create more powerful imagery as the reader is kept in the dark, and his mind conjures the worst.

Another successful example of foreshadowing is the narrator’s hesitation when speaking about the change in the second cat’s mark. The author writes, “It was now the representation of an object that I shudder to name – and for this, above all, I loathed, and dreaded, and would have rid myself of the monster had I dared” (Poe 14). In this passage, Poe delays the moment of telling that the cat’s mark took the form of the gallows. By using foreshadowing, the author adds to the reader’s state of nervousness, which contributes to the overall atmosphere of horror in The Black Cat.
By its genre, The Black Cat refers to horror fiction as it appeals to one of the oldest and strongest fears in human life that is the fear of the unknown. From ancient times, humanity was afraid and beware of anything it could not explain. Accordingly, the short story dwells on the mental malady, which frequently results in perversity by revealing the evil side of every human being. Madness is used to inspire terror because other people rarely know what to expect from a person with mental disability. The narrator’s psychological issues in The Black Cat are visible with a naked eye: “he maims an innocent cat, hangs it, kills his wife in a fit of temper, and finally hides her rotting corpse behind a brick wall” (Elswick 1). Nevertheless, throughout the text, the narrator continues to deny his madness. He attributes his violence towards external factors, including alcoholism or even cats’ behavior, and refuses to acknowledge the possibility of his unstable mental health.

As the narrator starts to engage in the first acts of violence, the short story instills terror because its events go out of control of the reader, and the audience cannot predict the narrator’s behavior anymore. As said, they start to fear of the unknown – the narrator’s brutal behavior and its outcomes. Moreover, alcohol in The Black Cat appears as a catalyst for the narrator’s attacks of madness. The narrator confesses, “I grew, day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others” (Poe 4). The consumption of alcohol reveals the narrator’s most evil nature, and this is one more moment where the story attributes to the fear of the unknown.

In particular, Poe raises the question of malice as the inherent part of human nature. The belief in the two sides of personality – good and evil – is preserved in multiple cultures, American included. The author asks, “Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not?” (Poe 6). With this question, Poe makes the reader think about the wicked side of a human being and worry about the moment when and how this evil displays itself. Accordingly, the narrator blames “the spirit of perverseness” for his murder of poor animals (Poe 6). Once again, one could attribute this statement to the narrator’s attempt to rationalize his madness and escape responsibility. Still, this plot twist succeeds in intensifying unease and horror in The Black Cat by making the audience fear the narrator’s inner demons.

Similar to modern horror films and literature, the setting also plays a critical role in the short story to create the needed atmosphere. The Black Cat is told from the cell of a prisoner, which creates a gloomy atmosphere from the beginning. Then, the setting briefly moves to the pictures of the family neighborhood, where the narrator settles with his lovely wife and a bunch of pets. Finally, a dark and grimy cellar becomes the main setting of the story, and the narrator describes the cellar as follows: “Its walls were loosely constructed, and had lately been plastered throughout with a rough plaster” (Poe 14). The story starts and ends with the gloomy setting.

Importantly, this transition from a warm and cozy home to the confined and moody cellar precisely coincides with the changes in the narrator’s mental well-being and, hence, reflects the plot of The Black Cat. The setting changes to a more confining place when the narrator experiences increased psychological pressure and so-called confinement. The narrator describes his state, “My wonder and my terror were extreme” (Poe 9). Accordingly, his senses are heightened; he commits to violence more often, which proves that the narrator’s mental health has aggravated. He yet refuses of confirming it and seeking help from other people. The narrator also denies any guilt and remorse until he becomes felt trapped by his own consciousness. It is no wonder that the story progresses into the cellar as it is the closest place in the house and located beneath anything else. The setting echoes the narrator’s inner state – deprived and confined, regardless of his confidence and composure on the surface.

Finally, even old-fashioned language and complex, long sentences are met in The Black Cat by the conventions of horror. Unlike first-person narration, outdated vocabulary and complex sentence structures are to distance the story from the reader and make it seem more mysterious and dark. For example, Poe uses such words as hitherto, vile, thereupon, or wretchedness, which sets a cold tone in the short story. Another illustrative example is the narrator’s use of such words as “brute” or “breast” towards the cat, which seems inappropriate names for a beloved pet and a devoted friend. However, the author chooses these appeals on purpose as in “I took from my waistcoat-pocket a pen-knife, opened it, grasped the poor beast by the throat” (Poe 5). Here the word “beast” adds drama to the passage and fits into the overall gloomy atmosphere of the story.

With the same purpose, Poe chooses complex and lengthy sentences over simpler sentence structures. A good example is the following sentence: “I blush, I burn, I shudder, while I pen the damnable atrocity” (Poe 5). Once again, multiple subordination creates a dramatic effect in the story. The clauses also impose one onto another and reflect on the main events and the narrator’s characterization (Malik 30). In other words, the complex structure of the sentence reflects unease in The Black Cat and the narrator’s psychological distress.

To sum up, horror has used to be one of the most challenging genres to write in literature. The author writing horror fiction needs to be talented enough to make a person scared and uneasy uncomfortable only due to dark images and gloomy atmosphere created in the story. Recognized as the master of a horror story, Edgar Allan Poe scares his readers skillfully, and unease and disturbing images in his short story The Black Cat only prove the latter. The writer uses a whole variety of literary techniques and devices to create a desirable atmosphere of terror and discomfort. Among those most noticeable, one can mention foreshadowing and writing from the first-person perspective. Besides, the gloomy atmosphere in The Black Cat is indebted to the grimy setting, the appeal to the fear of the unknown, old-fashioned, and complex language.

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