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.”