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The Visual Appeal of Edgar Allan Poe

IN THE April 28 ISSUE

FROM THE 2012 Articles,
andMysteryrat's Maze
SECTIONS

by Gary Earl Ross

In honor of The Raven, which will be released in movie theaters later this month, we have this Edgar Allan Poe article, an Edgar Allan Poe short story in the next issue & a Poe related poem.

For more than a century, Edgar Allan Poe has inspired artwork, plays, films, comic books, television shows, and other visual media. The forthcoming release of The Raven, in which John Cusack plays Poe on the trail of a serial killer, who uses his stories for inspiration, invites reflection on the ongoing impact of Poe on modern visual culture.

This new film is not the first motion picture named after Poe’s haunting poem of grief for a dead lover. In 1915, the silent Raven was a Poe biography based on a stage play. In 1935, it was a Universal horror film with Boris Karloff as a disfigured killer and Bela Lugosi as a mad scientist inspired by Poe. The comedic 1963 version featured Karloff and Vincent Price as dueling wizards, with Peter Lorre transformed by magic into a raven. That the new Raven incorporates elements of all three earlier versions—a fictionalized biography, Poe’s stories as inspiration for villainy, and a battle of wits—is a sampling of the range and reach of Poe.

When he died under mysterious circumstances in 1849, Poe was primarily known as a literary artist. In addition to penning extraordinary poetry (“The Bells”), he solidified the structure of the classic short story by inventing the detective story (Murders in the Rue Morgue), pioneering both psychological fiction (The Tell Tale Heart) and science fiction (The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaal), and mining his own fears and personal demons to give us lasting pictures of horror. He stirred our most primal fears in ways Shakespeare never did. While Shakespeare’s cultural impact is verbal (“life is cheap,” “the long and short of it,” “something in the wind”), Poe’s is visual. The notion of death as “the undiscovered country” in Hamlet seems an intellectual flirtation when compared to stark descriptions of premature burial, sounds of the newly dead in the walls and floors, and the return of presumed corpses seeking revenge.

Consider the ending of Poe’s The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, in which a man is hypnotized at the point of death and awakened seven months later: “As I rapidly made the mesmeric passes…his whole frame at once—within the space of a single minute, or even less, shrunk—crumbled—absolutely rotted away beneath my hands. Upon the bed, before that whole company, there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome—of detestable putrescence.” Poe exploited not death but fear of death that made nightmares a sensory experience.

The Raven

Poe’s visual appeal began in illustrations that accompanied his publications. In Edouard Manet’s 1875 illustration for The Raven, there is a shadowy tension between the perched raven and drowsing narrator.

In its simplicity, Aubrey Beardsley’s black and white The Black Cat (1894-95) is sinister. Especially macabre are the Harry Clarke illustrations for the 1919 Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Clarke’s images form a dramatic bridge between the waking imagination and the capacity for nightmare. Possessed of an almost cinematic dynamism, they bring motion to the horror of Poe.

The Black Cat

Like Shakespeare, Poe has been a film staple almost from the beginning of cinema, but unlike the Bard, Poe’s plots and words have taken a back seat to the expansion of his ideas. His name has been slapped onto film productions that sometimes took inspiration from his work and sometimes had nothing to do with it. Various versions of The Tell-Tale Heart from D.W. Griffith’s 1914 The Avenging Conscience to the 1960 film in which a metronome provides the requisite heart sounds retain the story’s fundamental plot. On the other hand, films like Universal’s 1934 The Black Cat with Lugosi and Karloff are related to Poe in name only.

Film offers the essence of Poe in a way it cannot offer Shakespeare. The horror of the Red Death and the terror of the pendulum are there for all to see. Poe never wrote, “I can hear the scratch of rat claws within the stone walls,” but when Roderick Usher utters these words in Roger Corman’s House of Usher (1960), we can hear those claws too. And the 1928 silent short The Fall Of The House Of Usher is a nightmarish blend of art deco and expressionism reminiscent of The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari.

Apart from Jules Dassin’s elegant directorial debut, the 1941 short The Tell-Tale Heart, and the modestly respected Murders In The Rue Morgue (1932) and Phantom Of The Rue Morgue (1954), Roger Corman’s films are likely Poe’s primary gateway into the popular imagination of the Baby Boom generation.

From 1960 to 1964, beginning with The House Of Usher, director Roger Corman cranked out for American International Pictures a series of eight films, seven of which were based on the works of Poe and seven of which starred Vincent Price. The exceptions were The Haunted Palace (1963), based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft, and The Premature Burial (1962), which starred Ray Milland. Referred to as the Poe Cycle, the films—which also included The Pit And The Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (1963), The Masque Of The Red Death (1964), and The Tomb Of Ligeia (1964)—were known for rich colors and lavish sets, as well as over-the-top acting from Price. (In 1974, while in graduate school, I was one of the students invited to dine with Price after a guest lecture to a packed university gymnasium. When it was my turn to pose a question, I asked which film was his favorite, fully expecting one of the Poe roles that had brought him such success. His reply surprised me: “The Shakespearean Edward Lionheart in Theatre Of Blood.” What actor doesn’t want to kill his critics?” (In a strange way, Poe was influencing a presentation of Shakespeare.)

Poe made horror real, madness tangible, and murder an act of complex motivation. He drew back the curtain on our interior monsters. In the 163 years since his death, those monsters have poured out of our cultural recesses with disturbing regularity in ever intensifying incarnations.

Now with The Raven (2012) Poe’s visual influence has come full circle. The mad genius inventor of the detective story (an accomplishment that pre-dated the noun detective) becomes a detective himself on the path of a serial killer (a term not in use until the 1970s but resonant today in our post-Thomas Harris/Hannibal Lecter world). According to the trailers, a game of wits is afoot, with the killer claiming to be Poe’s biggest fan (a term that would not exist for another fifty years). Anachronisms aside, blending the sensibilities of the past with the psychopathology of the present to create a noir visual feast, the film promises to engage us with mystery, horror, and Poe himself.

I can hardly wait.

Learn more about Poe in an article about Poe Cottage here at KRL.

Gary Earl Ross, a professor at the University at Buffalo, is the author of the books Shimmerville, Tales Macabre and Curious and Blackbird Rising. Resident playwright for Buffalo’s esteemed Ujima Theatre Company, he has written several mystery plays, including Sleepwalker: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Picture Perfect, Murder Squared, and Matter Of Intent, winner of the 2005-06 Edgar Allan Poe Award from Mystery Writers of America. The Scavenger’s Daughter will be on stage in May of 2012. For more information visit Gary’s website.

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