Edgar Allan Poe wrote short stories according to a rigorous framework, which he discusses at length in his Philosophy of Composition. While we encourage you to read it for yourself, today we’re looking at Poe’s three main criteria: the story must be short enough to enjoy in one sitting, it shouldn’t try to teach a moral lesson, and it must be in service to a singular emotion. With that in mind, let’s take a look outside the works of Poe to see which stories he would have enjoyed.
The Dread of “To Build a Fire” by Jack London
While this story contains no Gothic or supernatural elements, we still believe Poe would have enjoyed it. The man in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” believes himself capable of traveling through the frozen expanses of the Yukon alone. However, the man’s naivety and inexperience quickly reveal the danger of his situation, foreshadowing a treacherous turn of events.
While the tale itself could be read with a lesson in mind, the chilling atmosphere (pardon the pun) and dread of the man’s plight firmly earn London’s story the Poe seal of approval.
The Pity of “Miss Brill” by Katherine Mansfield
But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying.
Poe has been considered a forerunner of modernism, and one of our favorite modernists is Katherine Mansfield. In her short story “Miss Brill,” readers experience a day in the park through the eyes of the titular character as she sits and thinks about her relationship to others around her, imagining herself a significant part of the community around her. This constructed reality is shattered when a youth makes an uncouth remark, and Miss Brill returns home crestfallen.
The pity readers feel for Miss Brill when they see her true loneliness is undeniable—it might even make some readers cry, every single time they read it. So, would Poe have liked this modernist masterpiece? Absolutely. Mansfield’s “Miss Brill” hits all the marks for Poe’s criteria: it’s short, it doesn’t preach, and it packs an emotional punch.
The Sorrow of “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
But Goodman Brown looked sternly and sadly into her face, and passed on without a greeting.
Readers of Nathaniel Hawthorne know that he has a particular agenda with his stories: to unveil the hypocrisy and damaging effects of Puritanism. The tale of “Young Goodman Brown” is no exception. Goodman Brown ventures into the woods one day to meet with the devil, only to have his world turned completely upside down. He leaves the forest a downcast, cynical soul, and he lives out the rest of his life in sorrow.
The lessons in this story are not overt—although allegories abound—so we still think Poe would have approved. The story is a quick read, taking just 20 minutes, and delivers us a dose of true sorrow as Goodman Brown comes to realize that his belief structure is founded on lies.
The Disgust of “Porphyria’s Lover” by Robert Browning
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
Disgust and horror can often go hand in hand. In the case of Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover,” the overall disgust we feel comes from the sheer horror of the speaker’s actions. This short, powerful poem tells the story of a perverse love affair between a young woman, Porphyria, and her lover, an older, predatory man.
We’re certain that Poe would have liked this one. It’s dark, creepy, and shocking. The speaker is unreliable, the madness is severe, and the death is macabre. While one could find critical commentary on Victorian social customs in this tale, we know Poe would have appreciated the virtuosic precision with which it delivers disgust and revulsion.
The Terror of “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs
W.W. Jacobs primarily wrote humorous stories, but his most enduring work is “The Monkey’s Paw.” This short story in three parts tells a terrifying tale about the horror that befalls a family who decides to play with fate. Or perhaps it’s just a tale of tragic coincidence. The ambiguity only adds to the terror.
While we could see a lesson here, a kind of “be careful what you wish for” message, that takes backstage to the gripping suspense of the narrative. The story builds tension subtly at first, and then takes bold steps to full-blown terror in the climax. Consider this one Poe-approved.