In the first episode of The Following, there’s a moment in which FBI investigator Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) stands in the middle of a gruesome crime scene, looking at the word nevermore scrawled on the wall in blood. A lightbulb goes on. “The Raven!” Bacon blurts out. “Poe is symbolizing the finality of death!” That pretty much encapsulates the show's approach to Edgar Allan Poe: He’s the would-be Charles Manson of the Romantic era, a man for whom art, violence, and insanity were inseparable. On the show, this vision is carried out by Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), a famous literature professor who forms a cult of Poe-inspired serial killers. (For example, they cut out victims’ eyes because of “eye motifs” in “The Black Cat” and “The Telltale Heart.”) To find out how actual Poe scholars feel about this interpretation, we got in touch with renowned Penn State professor Richard Kopley, who says he’ll take The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror” over The Following any day.
Last year, we had a fictional Edgar Allan Poe biopic, The Raven, in which the author was hunting a serial killer, and now he’s attached to another serial-killer show. So, first off, how did Poe become our go-to guy for murderers?
We need a boogeyman, and because Poe’s stories and poems are associated with death and the grotesque and because he lived a life that was famously sorrowful and out of control, he seems to be a suitable person to tag. I once talked to some schoolchildren, and the first question they asked me was “How many people did Poe really kill?” So we’ve adopted him as our surrogate madman. But the great irony is that all this writing that he did was the most crafted, careful, thoughtful, complex work — anything but insane. Yes, he was an alcoholic; he did have his bad moments. But when he was writing, he was a great artist. Not because of insanity, but because of care and craft and genius.
In a flashback to Professor Carroll’s class, we see his justification for murder: He teaches that Poe believed in “the insanity of art, that it had to be felt.” Is that an accurate statement?
No. Poe believed that art, great art, could elevate the soul. To use ordinary language, he believed it could move you. In an essay called “The Philosophy of Composition,” which is about how he wrote “The Raven,” Poe said the most profound tone in the contemplation of beauty is the sorrowful, the melancholy … and what could be more melancholy and beautiful than the death of a beautiful woman? And so he’s offering this theme as one that, in the hands of an artist, can lead to a kind of sublime experience for a reader. This is what he’s interested in.
As a famous literature professor who specializes in Poe, could you inspire a cult of students to kill for you?
When my edition of Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym was published, I said to a friend of mine, “I’m really worried, because whenever I talked about Pym in the past, I’d have a good lecture. But now, with the introduction there in the book, what do I have left to say to my students?” And my friend said, “Don’t worry. They won’t read the introduction.” So I can’t get them to read the introduction! How am I going to get them to kill people?
Poe did write about dead girls a lot, in poems like “Annabelle Lee” and “The Raven.” On The Following, that motif is interpreted as a desire to kill women.
That’s a total distortion. Poe was 2 years and 10 months old when his mother died, and he said it was the great tragedy of his life. That loss grew throughout his life in different ways. He lost a woman he was very attached to, his best friend’s mother, when he was 12. Then from around 1842 onward, his wife, Virginia, was dying; that is to say, she had tuberculosis, and she was dying and getting better, dying and getting better. So this was just a fact of his life, that he was enduring the death and dying of women whom he loved.
And that didn’t make him just a little bit crazy?
Someone once wrote to Poe and said, “You’re insane because you drink.” Poe said, “You make a mistake. You blame the insanity on the drink, but you should blame the drink on the insanity.” And he goes on to talk about what he means by insanity, which is the grief of his wife dying. You have to imagine him in this tiny cottage with this beautiful young woman incessantly coughing up blood. I’m sure it was a horrific existence for anybody, but for Poe, who was so extraordinarily sensitive, it would have been far worse, probably.
“The Raven” has become a touchstone of this idea that Poe was insane. Why do we have this strong association of “The Raven” as this representation of someone going off the rails in this really violent and disturbing way?
This poem is about a fellow who seems to be losing it, but actually, he’s deliberately asking questions to which a negative answer will give him greater and greater pain. I mean, he knows the Raven’s only going to say one thing. As Poe explains in “The Philosophy of Composition,” he wrote the ending first and then filled in. And as (the narrator) is getting closer and closer to what he really wants to ask, which is “Will I ever see Lenore again?” the answer is going to be “Nevermore,” and that’s going to be this delicious kind of pain, because that is his life: the agony of the loss. We have taken that — and I guess it’s a tribute to Poe’s success that we all know the poem — and turned it into something not so deliberate, but rather out of control, wild and violent.
But why is Poe crazy in our collective memory? We don’t necessarily think other horror writers are crazy.
Poe didn’t invent the horror story, but he took it and intensified it, and he made it a revelation of the psychic states of extreme human beings. That allows us this sort of leap into free association, that not only are Poe’s characters violent and sometimes manic, but Poe himself was. We are fascinated by the ghoulish and the beyond-the-pale, and Poe offers us the possibility for exploring that. There seems to be a kind of blood lust, a vicarious wish for others to lose it, and because of the characters he created, Poe’s our man.
How about Kevin Bacon standing in the middle of a crime scene, yelling, “The Raven! Poe is symbolizing the finality of death!"?
Poe wrote that “The Raven” is “emblematic of mournful and neverending remembrance.” He is honoring loss, and the pain of loss, which most of us can connect to in some way or another. So this writer, Kevin Williamson, takes Poe’s honoring the pain of loss and honors depravity, honors gratuitous violence.
At the end of the episode, the killer says, “Even Poe whored himself out eventually.” Didn’t Poe write commercially throughout his life?
I think someone figured out that, in his whole life, he made $6,200. That’s very paltry. He was not able to make a decent living, and he was very jealous of the success of others, like Longfellow and Dickens. “Whoring himself out” — that’s just somebody’s cruel way of saying that he was writing for a living. He wrote an introduction to a book called The Conchologist’s First Book — conchology is the study of shells — and I think he got paid $50 to associate his name with this book. Well, gee, the guy is writing immortal works, and suffering the consequence, which is poverty. I don’t mind if, every so often, he tried to make a buck.
So it’s safe to say that The Following gets Poe wrong. In terms of film and TV, have you ever seen Poe done right?
I think in the popular culture where we have done better with Poe is in the comedic vein. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Simpsons episode with “The Raven”? My students always go up to me and ask if I’ve seen it; they’d give me VHS tapes of it in the old days. To them, it’s, “This is Poe; isn’t this great?” And it is great. It’s hysterically funny, and my impression is that Matt Groening really has a reverence for Poe. In terms of the dramatic, I would say I’ve never seen a film about Poe, or about his work, that is up to either the life or the writing. I don’t know why; I guess it’s because it’s so easy to play with the superficialities of his work without getting to the heart of them and doing them justice.