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Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King: A Comparison and Contrast of Their Writing Careers

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Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King: A Comparison and Contrast of Their Writing Careers

Essay written by: Janice Johnson (

In human nature there exists a morbid desire to explore the darker realms of life. As sensitive beings we make every effort to deny our curiosity in the things that frighten us, and will calmly reassure our children that there aren't any creatures under their beds each night, but deep down we secretly thrive on that cool rush of fear. Despite our efforts to maintain a balance of respectable emotions, we are a society of people who slow down to look at traffic accidents and find excitement in the macabre. We turn off the lights when watching scary movies, and when it's time to go to bed, we secretly make sure the closet doors are shut. Fear keeps our hearts pumping and endorphins rushing, for it is an emotion that reminds us of our mortality. How ironic it is to experience more life in our fascination with death.

Two legendary writers have ruled the universe of death and horror with remarkable success, both gifted with the talent of introducing each reader to his or her own subconscious fears. Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King are the masters of their craft, blessed- or perhaps cursed- with imaginations that set higher standards in the field of writing. Both authors broke new ground in fiction that has had a significant impact on the world of literature. Similar in quite a few ways, though contrasting in many others, this paper will explore the lives and styles of these two remarkable men, paying close attention to the differences that exist in their approaches to writing. A look into Poe's childhood might shed some light on where this divergence stems from.

Edgar Allan Poe was born in 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts to drifting actor parents. Denying his parental responsibilities, his father abandoned his wife and three children, leaving her to support the family as best she could. She traveled through various cities acting in stage engagements as she could get them, but the struggle eventually took a toll on her health. Towards the end of 1811 while in Richmond, Virginia, she became ill and died. Her children were promptly farmed into homes, Edgar being placed into the residence of a well-off, yet unsupportive merchant named John Allan. Allan was emotionally detached from Poe, refusing to even legally adopt the boy. This move would begin a chain of events, eventually triggering a drinking problem that would induce the majority of Poe's psychological troubles later in life. He was raised in an affluent home, but lacked the emotional support needed to build fortitude and confidence in himself.

In Poe's youth he didn't pursue a life toward writing, probably due to his assumption that he would eventually inherit his foster father's estate. He would attend the finest boarding schools in training to be a proper gentleman, but when it came time to go to the University of Virginia in 1826, his foster father gave him a meager allowance that would barely sustain him. John Allan had always been a harsh disciplinarian, and sometimes even cruel to the orphaned boy, but this was the first time he denied Poe the means to survive outside of his home. Adding insult to injury, he also forbids Poe study of what his heart so desired: poetry. Going against Allan's orders was not an option; what little money he was given to live off of would have been taken away. In an effort to make his money stretch out while in college, Poe turned to gambling, but like so many other gamblers he lost the money while developing a terrible compulsion. In short, his first term in college was not a success. When the semester was over Allan removed him from the University and forced him into a military academy.

In 1947 Stephen King was also born into a nomadic life style. His mother single-handedly raised both him and his brother while moving about the country in pursuit of their absentee father. Instead of dying under the pressure, though, King's mother survived and proceeded to motivate her son to write as much as possible. Contrasting the Allan/Poe home, the Kings were financially deprived, though rich in family support. King lived to write, and even created his own literary paper called The Rag when he was still in grade school. He submitted hundreds of stories to magazines, mostly in the genres of horror or science fiction, and proudly displayed the rejection slips on a large nail over his typewriter. In King's book "On Writing", he recalls, "By the time I was fourteen... the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing" (41). Rejection was simply a motivation for King to write better than before.

King received his college education at the University of Main in Orono. He lacked a financial backer to cover his expenses, so he worked full time in order to pay his tuition. He had published several short stories by the time he reached college and was becoming a serious writer. Contrasting Poe's lack of parental support, King's mother gave him full encouragement to pursue his craft, leaving him with no doubt that this would be his undertaking in life. Because he was so well grounded in his goals, he remained focused in college and blossomed as a writer in the experience. Perhaps this is where the core difference exists between Poe and King; one lacked a strong emotional foundation in his youth and went on to make disastrous choices, consequently keeping him out of reach of success within his lifetime. The other writer was brought up with encouragement, fostering a strong belief in his talents, which in the long run probably gave him an extra push toward the success he's experienced while still alive.

Before Poe was forced to leave the University of Virginia, he unfortunately discovered the curious effects of alcohol. "One glass of wine went to his head; very little more than that made him drunk. Alcohol was a dangerous stimulant for him- one that was eventually to bring about his ruin" (Van Doren Stern xviii). Beginning in college and continuing through the rest of his life, Poe would struggle with a drinking problem that earned him a broad reputation for being a senseless drunk. Though he frequently tried to quit drinking, it was never long before he would fall off the wagon and drink once again. Considering all that is currently known about the sustained effects of alcohol on the brain, it is possible that he never reached his full capabilities as a writer. One also has to wonder if his subject matters in writing (i.e., death, horror and fantasy) would have been the same if his youth hadn't been



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