Arts and Entertainment

A Difference in Perspective: Paranoia Edition

Though they are both writers of horror that incorporate an element of paranoia into their stories, the way that Edgar Allan Poe and HP Lovecraft...

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Edgar Allan Poe and HP Lovecraft are two writers well known for influencing the horror genre in the early 19th and 20th century, respectively. Though they both build suspense in their work, the ways that they do so differ greatly. Poe often focuses on a psychological horror centered on the human mind, while Lovecraft is well known for playing up his readers’ fears of the unknown, feelings of despair, and the theme that not all knowledge is power.

Furthermore, their histories, which influence their writing styles, are very different. Poe suffered from depression and alcoholism which likely caused his interest in insanity, though he did live a good life with a decent career and did have a loving marriage that encouraged self-awareness and realism in his work. Lovecraft, on the other hand, had a family history of psychotic episodes, frequent debilitating mental breakdowns, and fears of everything, from other people’s gazes to the progression of time—he often used his writing as a form of escapism. His love of science, particularly of astronomy, also informed his creation of horrific beings such as Cthuhlu and the other Great Old Ones.

Two stories that most strikingly illustrate the difference between Poe and Lovecraft are “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Cool Air.” In Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator murders the old man he lives with because of his fear of the old man’s disfigured eye. The murderer describes himself as merely a very nervous man, using the retelling of his murder to explain that he cannot possibly be mad, because a madman would not have been able to plan out such a scheme. Throughout the story, he spirals in his own loop of confusion and paranoia as he recounts the events leading up to his final confession to murder.

Poe’s use of an unreliable narrator makes this story what it is. The narrator constantly tries to justify his actions and explain them as sane while simultaneously condemning himself. “You fancy me mad […] But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded…with what dissimulation I went to work!” He does not address his motives, thinking that to “rid [him]self of the eye forever” is good enough. It is only when the narrator becomes convinced that the dead man’s heart is beating loudly in the presence of police officers that he is thrown into a crazed fit betraying him to be psychotic.

Poe’s story focuses on paranoia as the source of horror, but this isn’t the case for Lovecraft’s. In his sci-fi horror story “Cool Air,” Lovecraft expresses his paralyzing fear of a new technology: air conditioners. The narrator starts the story by admitting that he shivers whenever he feels a draft of cool air and that his story will explain the horrors that have made him fear the cold. He states that he had moved into an apartment beneath a Doctor Muñoz. The narrator suffers a heart attack one day and goes up for help. As he is treating the narrator, Muñoz discusses the wonders of progress and remarks on his air conditioner, which keeps the room cool on a hot summer day. The narrator proceeds to visit the doctor frequently until one day the air conditioner stops working. The narrator stumbles in to see Muñoz’s remains and a letter explaining that the air conditioner had been preserving his body, as he had actually been dead for eighteen years.

Lovecraft’s writing style highlights two key things: the fear of the unknown and the idea that knowledge is not always good. In “Cool Air,” he voices his concerns through the narrator stating, “The abnormal always excites aversion, distrust, and fear.” In 1926, air conditioning was a new technology. The point of this story is to impress upon the reader a wariness of scientific progression, as this results in the rise of the undead Doctor Muñoz. The narrator has been traumatized by his discovery of the undead to the point that every draft of cold air reminds him of the incident and reignites his horror.

Furthermore, this narrator does not try to convince the reader of anything, instead saying, “What I will do is relate the most horrible circumstance I have ever encountered, and leave it to you to judge whether or not this forms a suitable explanation of my peculiarity.” He has no need to do so, as he is only the vessel for the reader to experience the horror. Lovecraft’s character makes no indication to suggest that he is anything other than a reliable narrator.

The main difference between Poe and Lovecraft’s perspective is that while both portray some form of paranoia, Poe portrayed it as a filter on reality while Lovecraft did so as the correct lens through which to view the world. Poe’s character is clearly not in touch with reality and is an infamous culprit. Meanwhile, Lovecraft’s character plays the fool and finds out the truth too late. This reflects on the writers themselves: Poe saw paranoia as the affliction of a madman to be studied, and Lovecraft saw paranoia as the rational way to view the world around him. These two differences between Lovecraft and Poe are telling of how authors of various perspectives deal with the same topic: those who don’t deal with it may treat it as something to dissect, and those who do may treat it as a simple fact of life.