Thursday, February 03, 2011

Culture Shock 02.03.11: Poe's life is even stranger as fiction

More than 200 years after his birth, and more than 160 years after his still-mysterious death, Edgar Allan Poe is alive and well — as a fictional character.

A movie starring America’s most iconic literary figure is now in post-production. Meanwhile, ABC has ordered a pilot episode for what could become a prime-time series with Poe as the main character.

Poe’s life certainly has all the elements of a good story: The troubled relationship with his family, especially his foster father; The tortured poet who struggled with alcoholism and despair following the premature death of his young wife (who was also his first cousin); The artist who was better known and more widely respected during his lifetime for his criticism than his verse; The death at age 40, often attributed to alcoholism, after Poe was discovered disheveled and incoherent on the streets of Baltimore.

But it seems even that tale is not fantastical enough — not for Poe, the man whose own fantastical tales are among the most popular and influential in American letters.

The movie, titled "The Raven" after Poe’s most famous poem, is directed by James McTeigue ("V for Vendetta") and stars John Cusack ("High Fidelity") as our good author, who must track down a serial killer inspired by his works.

The TV pilot, "Poe," follows a similar formula, envisioning Poe as a detective. ABC describes the show as a "crime procedural following Edgar Allan Poe as the world’s very first detective, using unconventional methods to investigate dark mysteries in 1840s Boston."

An unconventional detective? Now there’s a novel idea.

The Boston locale has some in Poe’s final resting place of Baltimore feeling slighted. One, The Baltimore Sun’s Michael Sragow, retaliated by citing the historically frosty relationship between Poe and his birthplace: "Poe had such a contentious relationship with the scribes of his native city that it took until 2009 for Boston to designate ‘Poe Square’ near the writer’s birthplace."

To complicate matters, Poe was raised in Virginia and "sometimes posed as the Southern gentleman," writes J. Lasley Dameron in "The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture."

Perhaps someday there will be a "Young Edgar Allan Poe Adventures" set in Richmond.

But whether or not Boston is the appropriate setting, Poe as a detective isn’t a new idea — it’s been around since at least the 1940s — and it’s not totally off the mark. Poe may not have been the world’s first detective, but he did invent him: C. Auguste Dupin, who appeared in three of Poe’s stories, including the classic "Murders in the Rue Morgue," credited as the first detective story and published more than four decades before Sherlock Holmes’ debut.

The fictional Poe has had a career almost as noteworthy as his real-life inspiration’s. Apart from being a detective, he’s been a Confederate general in a story by Walter Jon Williams ("No Spot of Ground") and a vampire with a chronic case of writer’s block.

In Kim Newman’s "Anno Dracula" novels, Poe survives into the 20th century after becoming a vampire in the 1840s. He first appears in the second book "The Bloody Red Baron," a retelling of World War I with Germany led by Dracula and a cast of both historical figures and fictional characters from works of the period. It’s like "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," only no one has made a terrible movie based on it yet.

By the third novel, "Dracula Cha Cha Cha" (aka "Judgment of Tears"), set in 1959, Poe is calling himself Eddie Poe and is in Italy working as a screenwriter.

Here’s an idea: Edgar Allan Poe as a Hollywood screenwriter writing TV shows about himself as a vampire detective. I’d watch that.

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