Now You Know Poe

The latest episode of PBS’s American Masters series, Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive points a corrective lens at an author who is ever-popular yet has been long misrepresented/misunderstood (thanks in no small part to the character assassination performed by literary nemesis Rufus Griswold, and to Poe’s own crafty adoption of an offbeat public persona). Narrated by Kathleen Turner, the 90-minute documentary is stuffed with commentary by Poe biographers and scholars, film directors and novelists. The true highlights, though, are the interspersed scenes in which a Poe-impersonating Denis O’Hare performs monologues or equally-dramatic readings (the actor might not cut quite as striking a figure as John Astin did in his earlier “Once Upon a Midnight” one-man shows, but he does superlative work in bringing classic Poe creations such as “The Premature Burial” and “The Raven” to life). Writer/director Eric Stange’s film excels both in its placement of Poe’s life and work within the historical context of the first half of the 19th Century and in its exploration of the psyche of the unfortunate and often-tormented writer. If there’s one shortcoming here, it’s that Buried Alive conducts the postmortem of Poe posthaste; more time could have been devoted to delving into the mystery of Poe’s death, weighing the various theories as to what actually befell him and taking an interpretive stance. Nevertheless, this is an undeniably enlightening biography of the dark scribe, and the viewer will be left thinking of Poe as just some deranged, depraved drunkard nevermore.

Black Cat Variations: Nine Further Lives of Poe’s Frightful Feline

No one has done more than Poe to popularize the black cat as an animal of ill-omen (and perhaps active supernatural menace). In the years since its first publication in 1843, Poe’s “The Black Cat” has returned in an array of dark forms. Here are nine terrific instances:

1.”The Black Cat” by Gino Severini (1910-11)

Decades before ever being projected onto the big screen, Poe’s story was splashed across canvas by Italian Futurist painter Gino Severini. The image is at once dizzying and disturbing, with its depiction of dismemberment and a glassful of suspiciously crimson liquor. No doubt Poe’s “The Black Cat” (notice the doubling of the titular creature) is aptly adapted here; the Cubist-derived aesthetic of simultaneity also captures the Gothic sense of the past impinging upon the present.


2.The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain (1934)

Murderous schemes are unfortunately foiled in this classic roman noir (“And the cat came back! It stepped on the fuse box and got killed, but here it is back!” the femme fatale Cora exclaims toward’s novel’s end). The debt to Poe becomes more glaring in the final chapter, which shapes the narrative as the confession of a condemned man (charged with the death of the “hellcat” Cora, whose gruesome demise in a traffic accident might actually have been prompted by the narrator’s subconscious disgust).


3.Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)

A killer attempts to conceal the body of his female victim in the basement, but is tormented by an intrusive white cat (that embodies his overwhelming dread of the dominant culture). With its imagery of maiming and lynching, Poe’s story has been read as a veiled critique of Southern slavery, but Richard Wright brings racial matters to the unmistakable forefront. In the closing lines of his accompanying essay, “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” Wright boldly states: “[W]e have in the oppression of the Negro a shadow athwart our national life dense and heavy enough to satisfy even the gloomy broodings of a Hawthorne. And if Poe were alive, he would not have to invent horror; horror would invent him.”


4.”The Cat from Hell” by Stephen King (1977)

Anticipating Pet Sematary‘s Church (intriguingly, King’s short story also features a character surnamed Gage who dies in a horrific car accident), the eponymous demonic creature simultaneously hearkens back to Poe with its terrible resilience (its “half black, half white” face” recalls the streak of white ringing the neck of its counterpart in “The Black Cat”). King ultimately outdoes Poe for grotesquerie, as the latter’s suggestion of necrophagy at tale’s end here develops into something much more graphic and visceral.


5.”The White Cat” by Joyce Carol Oates (1987)

An upper-crust husband sinks to awful depths, as his repeated attempts to off his wife’s white Persian cat prove uncannily ineffective. Oates’s story, much longer than Poe’s and narrated in the third person, deftly probes the psyche of the antagonistic husband, whose unacknowledged hostility towards his (much younger and perhaps adulterous) wife is seemingly displaced onto a pet likewise indifferent to his attentions.


6.The Matrix (1999)

Poe occasionally authored what can be retroactively classified as science fiction, and has had his works memorably adapted as such (e.g. Ray Bradbury’s Mars-set homage “Usher II“). Still, one wouldn’t expect “The Black Cat” to pop up in the Wachowksi Brothers’ post-cyberpunk mindbender. But that’s exactly what happens when protagonist Neo twice sees the ebon animal cross his path. Such deja vu is explained as a computer glitch, but the echoes of Poe grow even stronger when Neo and friends (trying to evade the Matrix’s relentless Agents) subsequently secret themselves behind the walls of the Gothic building.


7.Masters of Horror: The Black Cat (2007)

The various screen adaptions of “The Black Cat” over the years have been merely nominal or hardly phenomenal, but not so this Stuart Gordon-directed episode of the Showtime anthology series. While it doubtless does a disservice to Poe by equating him with one of his own madman narrators, this purported origin story of the composition of “The Black Cat” cleverly blurs author biography and dark fantasy. It is also includes the most cringe-inducing (cat’s) eye-gouging scene ever filmed.


8.”Cats in the Catacombs” by Kristin Lawrence (2009)

The renowned Halloween Caroler Lawrence (who has also set Poe’s “The Raven” to music) likely proceeds more from a sense of wordplay, but the prominent image of a mouser inside a human tomb is nonetheless suggestive. The black cat that provides background yowls for the song’s recording adds another Poesque touch.


9.”Phoenix” by Chuck Palahniuk (2013)

The high notes from Poe (a despised sable pet, a spectacular house fire, the theme of retribution) echo throughout Palahniuk’s offbeat and wickedly witty rendering (involving a robotic vacuum cleaner, kitty litter, and toxoplasmosis). The key difference between the two compositions, though, is that here the obsessive, intemperate, and devious viewpoint character is the wife, not the husband.