This semester I’ve had the pleasure of teaching an upper-level course (English 4120) with a focus on “Poe’s War on Terror.” The title is deliberately counter-intuitive: we usually think of Poe as promulgating Gothic terror in his tales. But in fact from one angle, Poe’s work represents a sustained reflection on where terror comes from, how we can contain it, and thus how we avoid becoming victims of our own apprehensions. Certain tales–like “Hop-Frog”–seem immediately relevant to a critique or deconstruction of terrorism. Other works, like “The Pit and the Pendulum,” epitomize what has lately been called “terror management.”
Our class together went to see the new John Cusack movie, “The Raven,” and we enjoyed the film, though not always in ways the director might have intended. There’s a fair amount of internal self-parody, and quite apart from the gruesome re-enactments of several Poe tales, it was instructive to see how Poe had been repurposed for contemporary film audiences. Almost all of the cerebral interest that generates suspense or terror in the tales was eclipsed by graphic spectacles of mutilation. Cusack did his best to play Poe but he kept saying things that Poe himself would never have said, like the F-bomb in the tavern. Poe lived in the Victorian era and in 1849 he was courting not an 18-year old vixen but a late-thirty-something widow who was more than a little uneasy about Poe’s recourse to drink. By 1849 he was also on the skids professionally and would hardly have had a crazed but fervent fan of the sort this film is built around. Think “Criminal Minds” in period costumes, with people talking like participants in reality TV episodes. Still, there were some good moments, and the story is entertaining if you have no investment in Poe.