Edgar Allan Poe is a mainstay of American literary culture, particularly in classrooms and book clubs as Halloween nears. (The seeming infinite appeal of The Simpsons tribute episode helps as well!) But how does Poe achieve his reputation as a master of fright? At first, I imagined his diction being awash in gore, cruel verbs and butcherly adjectives. But an exploration of the literary data suggests that Poe achieves his narrative effects via other means entirely.
The Stories Under Exploration
For this analysis, I used the most popular collection of Poe’s short stories on Project Gutenberg called The Works of Edgar Allan Poe (Volume 2). The collection contains twenty-two of some of Poe’s best known stories, including “The Cask of Amontillado”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, and “The Tell-tale Heart”. I processed the stories to create a spreadsheet with the total number of times every word was used per story–totaling about 10,032 unique words and over 220,700 data points.
Poe’s Top 100 Words
The most frequently used words in Poe’s stories says something significant about his writing. Specifically, of the Top 100 words, not a single word could be categorized as gory or even scary. Rather, the list is riddled with the diction of narration and characterization. Just look at the following list of keywords, including the raw number of times each word appeared in Poe’s stories in parentheses:
the (7172), of (4312), and (2907), to (2111), a (2096), i (2064), in (1983), that (1181), it (1127), was (1072), my (955), with (817), as (794), which (785), had (753), at (725), is (650), but (628), not (618), for (612), his (581), this (558), he (537), from (526), upon (509), by (473), have (460), me (460), be (415), or (399), all (386), no (384), we (372), its (371), were (364), so (357), an (352), been (345), there (342), more (318), one (283), into (260), him (247), than (242), you (227), very (223), what (222), now (221), on (220), could (217), are (215), some (210), her (191), these (190), their (187), they (182), would (182), said (181), when (177), then (172), if (155), will (152), about (151), most (150), who (148), even (145), any (142), our (142), yet (136), up (133), only (132), them (130), through (130), long (129), out (127), while (126), thus (125), man (124), before (121), made (117), myself (116), own (115), well (115), such (114), has (111), within (110), first (109), still (109), other (108), us (108), many (105), over (105), length (104), she (103), say (102), like (101), little (101), much (101), once (101), and did (98)A list of the 100 most frequently used words in Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories.
Many of the words that appear here are functional. Sometimes referred to as “stop words,” words like the, of, and, to, and a that move the author’s writing forward but can strike one as uninteresting (at least at first). Other words on the list like I and my and his and he are a little more interesting as they begin to hint at characters. And when you scan the list for verbs, you will notice that there are only a handful used with any frequency. Intriguingly, said is one of the more popular verbs, which reinforces for me the importance of Poe’s characterization and use of dialogue in his stories.
There are so many questions we could explore: How does Poe rely on first person narration as a way to tell his stories? Does he shift narrative perspective to third person within stories (i.e. using both “I” and “he”) or does he mostly pick one perspective for his tales? Might Poe use prepositions to layer his writing while drawing the reader in? Or, does Poe rely on forms of contradiction signaled by the frequency of but and not to keep his readers on their toes?
For now, however, I will save such inquiries for another day. I want instead to better understand all that dark diction readers traditionally associate with Poe.
Bring on the gore!
Visualizing Poe’s Diction of Gore and Horror
I scoured Poe’s stories for the words I associate most with gore and horror in writing and film, plucking out the top 50 that screamed loudest. To my surprise, Poe employs such words with monkish restraint. Yes, night and death get used with some respectable frequency, but all the rest? Not so much:
night (92), death (85), horror (43), terror (36), dead (28), blood (27), dark (27), pain (20), darkness (18), cat (15), corpse (15), violence (14), cry (12), violently (12), violent (11), deadly (10), terrors (8), horrors (7), murder (6), torture (6), painful (5), cats (3), darkest (3), pains (3), rotted (3), scream (3), screamed (3), tortured (3), cries (2), darker (2), deaths (2), murdered (2), night’s (2), nightly (2), screams (2), suffocating (2), violate (2), violation (2), cat’s (1), corpses (1), crying (1), deaden (1), deathful (1), kill (1), killed (1), pained (1), painfully (1), screaming (1), suffocation (1), torturer (1), tortures (1), violated (1)My list of the 50 most frequently used words I associate with gore and horror in Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories.
Take a look for yourself. Use the interactive pie charts below to compare how frequently different horrific words appear in Poe’s short stories. You will see what I mean.
The literary data and visualizations lead me to what might be Poe’s greatest twist: If you are looking for gore, Edgar Allan Poe is not you author. When he writes, the fact is Poe doesn’t rely as heavily on shocking diction as one might expect. Instead, Poe locks the reader into the story with suspicious narrators and characters whose unsavoriness (to put it mildly) unfolds gradually and often intimately.
For example, consider this excerpt from The Telltale Heart:
“True, nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am, but why will say that I am mad?! The disease had sharpened my senses, not destroyed, not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute.”
Or, in this line from The Pit and the Pendulum:
“And then there stole into my fancy, like a rich musical note, the thought of what sweet rest there must be in the grave.”
Poe doesn’t appear to rely too heavily on lexical shock factors as I first assumed. Most of the time, he’s just patiently telling interesting stories with characters who are in some ways as relatable (what reader can’t relate with at least some feeling of madness?) as they are darkly extraordinary and even violent.
A Take Away
So what do the data tell readers about Poe? For me, I gained a new appreciation for how Edgar Allan Poe achieves the level of suspense he does. Poe knows readers fear not for themselves when they read. Readers fear for characters with whom they empathize: not that readers must like the characters, but readers do have to encounter characters in whose postlapsarian state they feel to be fit company. Then, when Poe presents sensational words like blood or corpse or horrors before the reader’s eyes, the words’ effects are felt all the more deeply. The reader doesn’t scream. What they do is far more aesthetically powerful, and the artful result of a story masterfully woven. They care.