Tag Archives: setting

How to create mood with words

I recently finished Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher and was astonished and amazed at the flowery prose. At first I thought well, yeah, he wrote it in 1839 so that explains it. But I’ve read other Poe stories and none of it was so over the top. So I reread it and realized that Poe had used this type of prose to create the mood — and that was the only goal. There is no moral to the story, no position (social or political), simply words that, combined, create this feeling of horror that spreads throughout. Here is an example:

I looked upon the scene before me–upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain–upon the bleak walls–upon the vacant eye-like windows–upon a few rank sedges–and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees–with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium–the bitter lapse into everyday life–the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart–an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.

With this introduction to the House of Usher, Poe continues to heap words onto the mood:

The vault in which we placed it (and which had been so long unopened that our torches, half smothered in its oppressive atmosphere, gave us little opportunity for investigation) was small, damp, and entirely without means of admission for light; lying, at great depth, immediately beneath that portion of the building in which was my own sleeping apartment. It had been used, apparently, in remote feudal times, for the worst purposes of a donjon-keep, and, in later days, as a place of deposit for powder, or some other highly combustible substance, as a portion of its floor, and the whole interior of a long archway through which we reached it, were carefully sheathed with copper. The door, of massive iron, had been, also, similarly protected. Its immense weight caused an unusually sharp grating sound, as it moved upon its hinges.

There is no real point to this story, except for placing a protagonist in a surreal situation and make him experience terror. No writer could get away with this kind of “arabesque” today but there is something to say about studying the master of the mood.

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