Edgar Allan Poe, Action Hero

The Raven continues a Hollywood tradition of the writer as swashbuckling detective—a caricature Poe himself might have loved.

John Cusack in The Raven
John Cusak plays Edgar Allan Poe in The Raven

Photo by Larry Horricks © 2011 Amontillado Productions. All rights reserved.

Only a few seconds have passed in The Raven before that familiar shot of a quill pen at work is interrupted by the arrival of a police inspector. Edgar Allan Poe puts pen to paper twice in James McTeigue’s film, for a total of maybe a minute. Even so, the writing process has to be given pizzazz by being made part of the deadly “game of wits” to which the author has been challenged by a killer; for some reason—it’s not really clear—one of the rules is that Poe has to write up each of the crimes. The film, though, isn’t content to just let him work. Poe’s more often riding a horse through some misty wood, knocking back a tankard, or chasing the killer across a rickety scaffolding, gun less-than-firmly in hand. He trades barbs with the “philistines” and “mental oysters” that are his critics. At one point, he prods a dead cat with what might be a pen. From the writer’s perspective, The Raven seems like a fight against the opinion of its villain, who muses, near the end: “That’s life: so much less interesting than fiction.”

This is a common problem for the literary biopic: The writing life just isn’t that compelling. What’s interesting happens inside the writer’s head, and, candlelit curlicues aside, there’s little cinematic interest in putting pen to paper. Maybe some of us writers are poor, drunk, or insane, but such states are also boring unless sublimated somehow.

Edgar Poe, 1848 daguerreotype
Edgar Poe, 1848 daguerreotype

Photograph by W.S. Hartshorn

So filmmakers sublimate. They might focus on an especially riveting event in the writer’s life, avoiding the actual writing process where possible. (See: Wilde, The Last Station, Henry and June.) Or they may venture into fiction, conflating biography with some salient aspect of the work. So, in Bright Star, Keats is not just Romantic but romantic too: head pillowed upon fair Fanny’s breast, mooning about in blue velvet tails, he essentially speaks in his own verse. The writer’s life reads like CliffsNotes—elements of plot, true or invented, explain the writing itself. Shakespeare in Love, Quills, and Becoming Jane based their plots almost entirely on this kind of speculative riff.

Poe, for his part, is peculiarly susceptible to being cast as a literary action hero. The Raven, a flagrant improvisation on Poe’s last days, plucks a few of the juicier bits from his prose: a murdered woman shoved up a chimney; a critic named Griswold sliced in two by a swinging, crescent shaped blade. On the trail of this copy-cat killer, the police find themselves in need of Poe’s “unwholesome expertise.” The killer then kidnaps Poe’s weirdly telegenic fiancé, and the two begin their game: Each new body contains a clue to the next, eventually leading to the girl. To solve the clues, Poe—played with a bonus goatee by John Cusack—must perform virtuoso feats of self-interpretation, parsing his own work and eventually writing the ending himself. His final story (entirely invented for the film) would have the real Poe rolling in his early grave: “Poe could feel the poison already feeding on his blood, as the maggots were soon to do.” 

Poe’s treatment in The Raven is predated by films like The Spectre of Edgar Allan Poe (1974), Castle of Blood (1964), and The Man With A Cloak (1951)—campy, popular entertainments starring the author that run the gamut from bloody slasher flicks to Twilight Zone-like tales of the unexplained. In some sense, it’s a fitting legacy. After all, Poe was led by poverty to produce works catering to popular tastes for the morbid and bizarre. “To be appreciated,” Poe wrote, “you must be read, and these things are sought with avidity.” Or, as his editor puts it in The Raven: “Blood and death! Give me something I can sell!”

Even so, blame the popular image of the author as macabre on Poe’s literary executor, the Rev. Rufus Griswold, who (apparently in revenge for a bad review) rather brilliantly contrived to have Poe remembered as mad. “Edgar Allan Poe is dead,” Griswold wrote in the New York Tribune a few days after the author’s death, “This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved.” It was a consummate smear campaign, complete with forged letters, exaggerated vices, and denunciations cleverly mixed with praise. The falsehoods thrilled Poe’s readers, and with good reason, too: How wonderful to imagine that the author of “The Tell-Tale Heart” had constructed such fantasies from the depths of his own twisted soul! Thanks in part to Griswold, Poe’s now an exemplar of dangerous genius—the Godfather of Goth, if you will.  

The mysterious circumstances of Poe’s death provide especially fertile soil for this sensationalist character to take root. In the summer of 1849, Poe was living in Richmond, where he was, his friend Susan Talley wrote, “invariably cheerful, and frequently playful in mood.” Then, on Sept. 27, he boarded a boat for Baltimore. No one knows what happened next, but six days later he was found semi-conscious in front of a polling place, wearing someone else’s cheap suit. Poe never regained consciousness; he died, crying out for a person called “Reynolds,” in the hospital the next day. Theories as to cause of death differ widely, among them rabies, tuberculosis, suicide, “brain congestion,” diabetes, cholera, and heart disease. Another suspect is a practice known as “cooping,” in which passers-by were seized by gangs, drugged, and then carried around to repeatedly vote.

The temptation to fill in the blanks with something as chilling as Poe’s own stories is perhaps too much to resist. But a gorefest like The Raven reinvents the author by bowdlerizing his work, picking it over for the bloodiest and most recognizable scraps. Poe’s form of horror was not the cheap Gothic stuff The Raven portrays: “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” as Saw for an antebellum age. Some of Poe’s stories are as much essays as tales, “Rue Morgue,” for instance, is a discourse on deduction that inspired Sherlock Holmes. Some are near-Freudian explorations of what the mind can inflict on itself, casting doubt on whether the real horror is inside the mind or out. In “The Imp of the Perverse,” Poe describes the moral terror that sets in when the senses fail to yield to a reason: “We peer into the abyss,” he writes, “we grow sick and dizzy,” yet the mind finds itself delighted by the sense of wrong. There is far more real terror here than anything in The Raven.

Poe did much to erase the gap, not only between reason and madness, but between written and lived. He might actually have enjoyed the prospect of a swashbuckling fictional afterlife, known as he was to review his work under false names, conflate himself with the narrators of stories like The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and invent Byronic autobiographical yarns. It’s no surprise many of his competing biographies are just portraits of the shadow thrown by his work, misreading it to varying degrees. By making him a character not only living his work but written into and determined by it too, The Raven is just a link in a very long chain. As Cusack’s Poe complains: “Even in the end I’m confronted with plagiarists, without even the originality to invent.”