Skin-Crawling Tension: The Writing Styles of Poe and Lovecraft

Black and white scribble art depicting a hand holding a calligraphy pen, scratching on a sheet of paper. Source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/735634920356474407/

It is no secret that H.P. Lovecraft greatly admired Edgar Allan Poe. Once, H.P. Lovecraft even identified Poe as a strong influence on his writing, saying, “When I write stories, Edgar Allan Poe is my model” (The H.P. Lovecraft Archive). With a quick read through each author’s works, that influence is clear as both Poe and Lovecraft use very similar writing styles. Not only are both Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft iconic authors in the genre of horror fiction, they also use a lot of the same language in their stories and Lovecraft uses many of the same thematic elements that Poe does, especially when building up tension in his horror fiction. Yet, there are still differences in each of the author’s writings, however subtle they may be. 

An important yet subtle difference between both Poe and Lovecraft’s styles can be seen when comparing two of their popular works, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, by Edgar Allan Poe, and Dagon, by H.P. Lovecraft. Both stories deal with horror, an iconic theme in both author’s works, and include passages that build up tension as the story becomes increasingly unnerving. This can be seen by analyzing the following excerpts from the stories, both of which work to build up the skin-crawling tension in each author’s story. More detail will be given later in this post regarding the underlined sentences.

The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, by Edgar Allan Poe

While I spoke, there came a marked change over the countenance of the sleep-waker. The eyes rolled themselves slowly open, the pupils disappearing upwardly; the skin generally assumed a cadaverous hue, resembling not so much parchment as white paper; and the circular hectic spots which, hitherto, had been strongly defined in the centre of each cheek, went out at once. I use this expression, because the suddenness of their departure put me in mind of nothing so much as the extinguishment of a candle by a puff of a breath. The upper lip, at the same time, writhed itself away from the teeth, which it had previously covered completely; while the lower jaw fell with an audible jerk, leaving the mouth widely extended, and disclosing in full view the swollen and blackened tongue.

Dagon, by H.P. Lovecraft

Then suddenly I saw it. With only a slightly churning to mark its rise to the surface, the thing slid into view above the dark waters. Vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome, it darted like a stupendous monster of nightmares to the monolith, about which it flung its gigantic scaly arms, the while it bowed its hideous head and gave vent to certain measured sounds. I think I went mad then.

The two underlined sentences each play an important role in helping the stories progress and describe two of the most disturbing details from each story. By focusing on these two specific sentences, we can observe notable differences in each author’s writing style. The first sentence, by Poe, describes the appearance of the mysteriously undead M. Valdemar, and the second, by Lovecraft, describes Dagon, the monstrous fish god. These differences can be seen by comparing two of the most important sentences in each excerpt in the highlighted text below. Although both sentences are similar in length and maybe even in the language they use, there are many grammatical differences, which have been outlined below. 

The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, by Edgar Allan Poe

The eyes rolled themselves slowly open, the pupils disappearing upwardly; the skin generally assumed a cadaverous hue, resembling not so much parchment as white paper (note: this elliptical clause also uses simile) ; and the circular hectic spots which, hitherto, had been strongly defined in the centre of each cheek, went out at once. (note: later compared to candle).

Dagon by H.P. Lovecraft 

Vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome, it darted like a stupendous monster of nightmares to the monolith, about which it flung its gigantic scaly arms, the while it bowed its hideous head and gave vent to certain measured sounds.

The following list of terms can be used as a guide for the highlighted sentences and definitions: 

  • Elliptical clause (purple) – A clause in which a part has been left out but is “understood”: “Kenny is older than I (am old)” (Kolln et al. 339).
  • Dependent clause (underlined) – A clause that functions as an adverbial, adjectival, nominal, or sentence modifier (in contrast to an independent, or main, clause) (Kolln et al. 339).
  • Adjective – One of the four open classes, whose members act as modifiers of nouns; most adjectives can be inflected for comparative and superlative degree; they can be qualified or intensified; they have characteristic derivational endings such as -ous, -ish, -ful, etc. (Kolln et al. 335).
  • Adjective phrases (orange) – A modified adjective, such as an adjective with a qualifier, a comparative or superlative word, or prepositional phrase (Kolln et al. 335).
  • Simile (blue) – “a figure of speech comparing two unlike things that is often introduced by like or as (as in cheeks like roses)” (Merriam-Webster).

After looking through the analyzed sentences, a few notable differences become evident. For example, Edgar Allan Poe uses a lot of elliptical clauses and adjectival phrases to describe M. Valdemar’s appearance. Poe also makes use of simile in this sentence. Instead of breaking up the description of M. Valdemar’s appearance into separate sentences, Poe uses elliptical clauses in quick succession to keep the suspense going and paint a vivid picture in the reader’s imagination. Also, by choosing to use simile and more descriptive adjectival phrases instead of simply opting for a singular adjective to describe the subject, Poe keeps the reader hooked on the description while still being able to add vivid detail to the story. If the sentence were instead broken up into separate independent clauses, the build-up of suspense that comes with this description would be much more difficult to achieve.  

Lovecraft uses a similar writing style to build up suspense in his description of Dagon. He relies heavily on adjectives and uses them in an over the top manner just as Poe does with his adjective phrases. However, Lovecraft’s use of adjectives is precise and fast-paced. He uses singular words rather than lengthy detailed clauses to describe his subject. For example, at the beginning of the sentence, Lovecraft uses three separate adjectives in quick succession, and then goes on to add yet another, all to describe one subject, writing, “Vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome, it darted like a stupendous monster of nightmares…” (Lovecraft 1919). 

Lovecraft’s use of adjectives contrasts with one of Poe’s descriptions in the sentence describing M. Valdemar’s appearance where he writes, “the skin generally assumed a cadaverous hue, resembling not so much parchment as white paper…” (Poe 1845). Instead of using singular adjectives as Lovecraft does, Poe uses round-a-bout descriptions, and simile to add details to M. Valdemar’s appearance. Instead of simply saying “the skin was a paper-white, cadaverous hue,” Poe adds much more detail which helps in creating a vivid mental image in the mind of the reader. The style that Poe chooses to write this story also helps add dimension to his protagonist, the doctor observing M. Valdemar, by helping the reader see the details through the eyes of a physician examining and unnervingly ill patient.

That is not to say that Lovecraft fails at painting a vivid image with the language he chooses, on the contrary, Lovecraft’s style is effective in its own right. By sticking to singular adjectives and short dependent clauses in quick succession, Lovecraft is able to convey the feelings of his protagonist as the character stands frozen in horror at the sight of the fish-god, Dagon, and then flees in panic. Lovecraft also uses his short dependent clauses to add detail while still focusing on the singular subject. If Lovecraft were to use longer descriptions as Poe does, the story would not move along as quickly, and would not be in keeping with the theme of short, fast, sentences to convey the emotion of the protagonist that the Lovecraft uses throughout the story. 

Both authors use similar techniques with only the slightest grammatical changes, yet those changes make a vital impact in changing the pace, emotion, and suspense building up within the story. Some of the writing styles that the authors utilize include writing in the first person, using tension filled descriptions to add detail, and coming to an abrupt resolution to that tension. However, by altering the grammatical style slightly, each author can effectively tell their story and add descriptions unique to the situation facing their individual protagonists.

About Me

Hi! I am Elizabeth Perez. I am an undergraduate Communication Studies major and English Language and Literature graduate student at St. Mary’s University. Writing is my passion and my creative outlet. I love reading, creative writing, sitcoms, and traveling. Words have power; power to create and power to communicate. That is why language is so beautiful and why expression through writing interests me so much. My dream is to become a freelance writer and pursue my passion of writing while traveling and exploring the unique places and people of the world.

Works Cited

“H.P. Lovecraft’s Favorite Authors.” The H.P. Lovecraft Archive, ww.hplovecraft.com/life/interest/authors.aspx. 

Lovecraft, H.P. “Dagon.” “Dagon” by H. P. Lovecraft, 1919, http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/d.aspx. 

“Part VI: Glossary of Grammatical Terms.” Understanding English Grammar, by Martha Kolln et al., Pearson, 2016, pp. 335–339. 

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar by Edgar Allan Poe.” PoeStories.com, 1845, poestories.com/read/facts. 

“Simile.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/simile. 

Published by modcasters

We’re a group of graduate students studying English Literature and Language on a mission to discuss literature, provide access to those on the deafness and/or blindness spectrum, and rock mustachios.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: