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Edgar Allan Poe - Not cheap thrills but psychological depth

MASTER of horror and suspense, Edgar Allan Poe also mastered the essence of popular culture: He created art for art's sake with immediate and powerful effect, writes Ben Nuckols.

Lisa, that wasn't scary, even for a poem!" Bart Simpson complains after his sister reads Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" in a classic Halloween episode.

"Well, it was written in 1845!" Lisa says. "Maybe people were easier to scare back then!"

Jaded cartoon kids aside, Poe still does scare people ?? even 200 years after his birth. His tales of Gothic horror and grisly murder retain their grip on the imagination. His sad, short life and mysterious death feed his legend.

Even the daguerreotypes of a pallid, death-haunted Poe burnish his image as a master of the macabre, a man who endured more than his share of misery and squalor and whose suffering fueled a body of work that reverberates throughout popular culture to this day.

Poe endures in part because he had more in common with today's artists and entertainers than he did with his contemporaries, says Paul Lewis, an English professor at Boston College.

"He is a foundational figure in the development of popular culture," Lewis says. "He wanted readers to take away an immediate feeling, a deep response when they read a story or poem. That sense of art for art's sake becomes central to popular culture, which is trying to provide people with a very visceral experience, a very powerful effect."

Whether readers are introduced to Poe through English classes, comic books or filmed performances by the late actor Vincent Price (who did dramatic readings of Poe's work and starred in "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Raven," and other movies), they tend never to forget him, and they find that his work offers more than cheap thrills.

"Poe is too often presented as a classic writer for young readers," says best-selling novelist Laura Lippman, who has contributed an essay to a new Poe anthology edited by Michael Connelly. "He's great for young readers, because he's so accessible, but his work has a psychological depth that resonates more powerfully when one is older."

Says actor John Astin, who toured as Poe for six years in a one-man show and has studied him extensively: "Those who try to trivialize Poe are making a big mistake."

Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809; he died in Baltimore in October 1849. Yet writers of contemporary genre fiction, including Lippman, remain indebted to him - he's widely credited with inventing the detective story and he dabbled in science fiction. He even speculated about an event similar to the Big Bang in an essay called "Eureka."

Arthur Conan Doyle acknowledged Poe's influence, as did H.P. Lovecraft. Stephen King continues to prove the timeless and widespread appeal of the themes Poe explored.

Film makers adapt him and reference him constantly. Poe's listing on the Internet Movie Database would shame the most prolific screenwriter. Films have been adapted from his work in every decade since the 1900s.

Universal Pictures made a series of Poe adaptations in the 1930s starring horror luminaries Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. In the 1960s, B-movie pioneer Roger Corman adapted Poe tales into six movies, with Vincent Price hamming it up as a series of twisted, tormented Poe protagonists.

Price became "almost an alter ego of Poe himself," Corman says. "I think there was almost a semi-autobiographical conceit to these stories. (The heroes) weren't always Poe himself, but I think they were expressions of some aspects of his unconscious mind."

Adapting Poe gave Corman the chance to work in color, with bigger budgets than he'd enjoyed previously, because he believed Poe's name could still sell.

"I felt that there was some value in his name," Corman says. "There was an enduring quality to his work."

There's no indication that Hollywood believes Poe's oeuvre is played out. Independent film maker Michael Cuesta ("L.I.E.") is putting the finishing touches on "Tell-Tale," a loose adaptation of "The Tell-Tale Heart," starring Josh Lucas as a heart-transplant recipient who tries to find his donor's murderer.

"It's inspired by the idea of the heart being representative of someone's conscience," Cuesta says. "The heart is almost a honing device. It beats when it's around the people that wronged it, as in 'The Tell-Tale Heart'."

Cuesta was attracted to "The Tell-Tale Heart" because it's told from the point of view of a murderer who insists he is sane but who kills an innocent old man for no good reason. The story argues, Cuesta says, that "we have mostly to fear our own perception of things. It's in our head. His stories are so psychologically horrific."

A screenplay called "The Raven" is also generating buzz. Writers Hannah Shakespeare and Ben Livingston take their inspiration not from the famous poem but from the author's life - specifically, its mysterious final days. The story imagines Poe joining the hunt for a serial killer whose murders are inspired by his stories.

The real Poe dabbled in detective work himself, offering a possible solution to a notorious New York slaying in his story "The Mystery of Marie Roget."

"He was obviously a real crime solver, whether via his imagination or his true-life stories," said Shakespeare, whose credits include the TV series "Ghost Whisperer" and "Bionic Woman."

"The specificity and the detail and the imagery in the work, it was right there for us. We picked the stories that we liked the best. Very little had to change in terms of interpreting the actual stories onto the screen - it's such a visual text."

Canadian actor Brent Fidler toured as Poe in a one-man show and has adapted it into a low-budget movie, "Poe: Last Days of the Raven." Fidler says people of all ages attended his performances, and many told him that Poe helped confront their fear of death.

"Everybody's busy filling up their lives with whatever we fill up our lives with to try to never think about the grim reaper," Fidler says. "Poe went directly into that subject matter and explored the psychological and spiritual aspects of death."

And that's why he remains so frightening, despite any mockery that suggests otherwise.

"It's not just thriller writing. It expands into this universal dread that we all have. It's like an existential dread that he hits upon," Shakespeare says. "The panic of death and what that transition feels like is so much (a part of) his work. That's really horrifying."


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