What if the creators of The Following, the new serial-killer carnival of gore that began on Fox and CTV this week, had chosen some of Edgar Allan Poe's less celebrated works as their inspiration? They might have sought wisdom from Poe's essay The Philosophy of Furniture, from 1840 ("The soul of the apartment is the carpet.") Or his review, as he scrambled to scrape together a few dollars, of a book called Treatise on Corns, Bunions, the Diseases of Nails, and the General Management of the Feet ("It cannot fail to do a great deal of good.").
Alas, it was evident from the first episode of The Following that we weren't going to get the subtle and variegated Poe, as soon as a woman toppled forward with an ice pick in her eye and the words of The Raven inscribed on her naked body.
Ah, The Raven. Beaks, hearts, dying embers, dancing rhythms. It is a poem, in the words of Poe's biographer Kenneth Silverman, "for people who don't like poetry." And The Following, like the stream of Poe-inspired novels and films that continue to gush from Hollywood's open artery, is a TV show for people who don't really like Poe.
At the bloody heart of The Following is a pair of foes: a serial-killer college professor who is obsessed with Poe and bases his murders on the writer's works; and the former FBI agent who hunts him. (This, at least, might have appealed to Poe: He loved a macabre twinning.) Standing in front of a photo of the young women who have been butchered, the good guy, played by Kevin Bacon, solemnly explains that the professor's murderous intent came from the writer: "Like Poe, he believed in the insanity of art – that art had to be felt. He didn't just eviscerate 14 women, he was making art."
Wait, what? Step away from the syllabus, Agent Undergrad! Poe may have been many unsavoury things – peevish, vindictive, a serial fantasist, a champion holder of grudges – but to equate his art with his life, to use his stories as cheap shorthand for evil, does him a gross disservice. In other breaking news, Stephen King does not own any demonic cars.
But this, I fear, is poor Poe's lot. His work, so groundbreaking in the mid-19th century in the way it forecast science fiction and detective stories, is now misrepresented to give intellectual respectability to risible thrillers, a bit like putting a mortarboard on a Chucky doll. Last year, in the big-screen mystery The Raven, John Cusack played Poe as an intrepid sleuth hunting a killer who used his stories as the basis for crimes. "Imagination is not a felony!" he bellows at one point. No, but turning a great writer into a parlour trick should be.
To be fair, Poe's awesomely sad biography is opium to screenwriters. "The blasted soul," biographer Peter Ackroyd called him, and Silverman noted with sympathy "the waves of disaster and affront that began practically with his birth." Indeed, the lowlights of Poe's life could have sprung from his own pen, on a particularly lurid and self-pitying day: the tubercular wife gushing blood at the piano, the sad orphan kicked to the side by a cruel foster father and then kicked out of West Point with only 24 cents in his pocket. The pennilessness, the friendlessness, the laudanum, the drink, oh my!
But biography, while entwined with art, is not its whole. Poe's work shouldn't be reduced to the sorrows of his life, or even worse, to a few macabre stories and The Raven. Concentrating on the (admittedly wonderful) Black Cat and The Tell-tale Heart, as The Following does, ignores the breadth of Poe: the joyful weirdness of The Angel of the Odd, the head-twisting puzzles of The Gold-Bug, the psychological astuteness of The Oblong Box. There was more to the rascal than cheap thrills.
In a way – actually in every way – The Following is nothing new. Filmmakers have been riding Poe's shabby coattails since 1934's The Black Cat (starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi) was "suggested by a story by Edgar Allan Poe," but in fact had absolutely nothing to do with that tale of a drunk's homicidal mania. Ditto Roger Corman's The Raven (1963), which bore no resemblance to the poem. When Bacon, in The Following, looks at an eye-gouged corpse and says, "Poe believed eyes are our identity, the window to our soul," you may want to reach for the opium bottle yourself. Remember, though, he's only treading where many have trod before.
There is one poignant moment in The Following, when a character mutters, "Lord, help my poor soul." Those were reported to be Poe's last words as he lay dying and delirious in a Baltimore hospital. It's too late for his soul, but at least we can try to rescue his stories.