The Raven, a highly enjoyable piece of gothic hokum, purports to reveal the truth about Edgar Allan Poe’s last days, but it begins with a statement that’s patently false. After a mysterious disappearance, the opening title informs us, Poe was found delirious on a park bench in Baltimore on October 7, 1849. Director James McTeigue fades in on a close-up of the title bird, perched on a tree branch above the ailing Poe (John Cusack), and the eerie image is typical of a movie that favors macabre atmosphere over established fact (or even common sense). The record shows that Poe turned up in Baltimore not on a park bench on October 7 but in a building called Gunner’s Hall on October 3, and clung to life for four days before he gave up the ghost at age 40. The Raven is hardly the first wild story to spring up around Poe’s death, though; for years his biographers indulged their imaginations as much as he ever did.
Nobody knows what happened to Poe between the morning of September 27, when he left Richmond, Virginia, for a business trip to New York City, and October 3, when a printer named Joseph Walker encountered him at Gunner’s Hall and summoned help. The first published account of Poe’s last days came from Rufus Griswold, a Philadelphia editor and critic, whose biographical essay “Memoir of the Author” appeared in an 1850 collection of Poe’s works. “Arriving in Baltimore,” wrote Griswold, “he gave his trunk to a porter, with directions to convey it to the cars which were to leave in an hour or two for Philadelphia, and went into a tavern to obtain some refreshment. Here he met acquaintances who invited him to drink; all his resolutions and duties were soon forgotten; in a few hours he was in such a state as is commonly induced only by long-continued intoxication.”
Griswold never explained how he came by this information, and he managed to get two key facts wrong in his account, giving Poe’s departure date from Richmond as October 4 and his age as 38. But Griswold’s version of events quickly became the standard narrative, even as “Memoir of the Author” earned a reputation as one of the biggest hatchet jobs in American literary history. He and Poe had a long and contentious history: they met in March 1841 in Philadelphia, where Poe was editing a local literary journal and Griswold a new anthology of American poetry, and subsequently fell out when Griswold succeeded Poe at the magazine and Poe publicly slammed Griswold’s book. After Poe died, Griswold—likened by one historian to a villain from a Charles Dickens novel—misrepresented himself to the late poet’s family as having been named his literary executor, and his derogatory memoir included embarrassing extracts from Poe’s letters that later proved to be forgeries.
The story of Poe drinking himself to death was eventually replaced by another one that was even more lurid, though no more substantiated. As John Evangelist Walsh explains in his book Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, a journalist named R.H. Stoddard published an article in the September 1872 issue of Harper‘s stating that Poe, killing time between trains in Baltimore, had been kidnapped. “It was the eve of an exciting municipal election,” wrote Stoddard, “and as he wandered up and down the streets of Baltimore he was seized by the lawless agents of some political club, and shut up all night in a cellar. The next morning he was taken out in a state of frenzy, drugged, and made to vote in eleven different wards.” This sort of electoral skullduggery, known as “cooping,” is well documented, though Stoddard’s story is supported only by circumstance: the U.S. congressional election transpired on October 3, and Gunner’s Hall housed a local tavern that served as a polling place.
Adding to the multiplicity of stories, a physician named John J. Moran, who’d attended Poe on his deathbed, came forward in 1875 to claim that Poe had not been drunk or suffering from delirium tremens. “He succumbed to an overdose of opium,” Moran told the New York Herald, “which he had taken to allay the excitement of his very sensitive nervous system.” Moran’s continual embroidering of Poe’s last days has been widely attacked, and Walsh considers his story a whitewash, given that tincture of opium was then a socially acceptable over-the-counter drug. But Poe’s medical records have not survived, and over the years his death has been attributed to everything from diabetes to syphilis to epilepsy to cholera to heart disease to lead or mercury poisoning. After carefully debunking the major theories about Poe’s death, Walsh goes bananas in his last chapter with a wildly speculative tale in which Poe is ambushed in Baltimore by his fiancee’s three brothers and force-fed a fatal bottle of whiskey.
When the historians are getting this crazy, the popcorn-movie makers are entitled to a little slack, and God knows The Raven needs it. Screenwriters Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare have decided that, during Poe’s mysterious disappearance, he came to Baltimore to wrangle with his editor at the Baltimore Patriot and court the lovely debutante Emily Hamilton (both of them invented), then got caught up in a murder investigation. Shortly after Poe arrives in town, police answer a call for help and burst into a dingy apartment where a woman has gotten her head nearly hacked off and her daughter has been murdered and stuffed up the chimney. The crime scene precisely resembles the one in Poe’s story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and before long a valiant police detective (Luke Evans) has enlisted the author to help capture a serial killer who’s riffing on Poe’s work. How Poe managed to “disappear” when he was involved in a police manhunt and the subject of screaming newspaper headlines every day is conveniently ignored.
McTeigue also directed V for Vendetta (2005), another bit of mock-Victorian folderol that I got a real bang out of even after my critical colleagues informed me it was crap. He must be one of those filmmakers who read their reviews, because The Raven includes a number of slaps at critics (despite the fact that Poe earned much of his income, and numerous enemies, eviscerating other people’s work). In the movie’s most delectable in-joke, the murderer’s second victim is none other than Poe’s real-life character assassin Rufus Griswold, who’s strapped to a table and subjected to the fiendish death-by-degree Poe dreamed up for “The Pit and the Pendulum.” “Have mercy!” Griswold screams at the shadowy figure in the rafters as a swinging poleax approaches his bloated belly. “I’m only a critic!” Before long he’s been cut in half like a rotten tomato.
My soft spot for the movie may have something to do with the fact that McTeigue and company clearly love Poe’s elegant, evocative writing. Not only does the serial-killer plot incorporate elements from his seminal mystery and horror tales (“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Tell-Tale Heart”), but the dialogue includes haunting verses from “Annabel Lee,” “A Dream Within a Dream,” and of course the title poem. Watching The Raven, I was continually reminded of Guy Ritchie’s goofball Sherlock Holmes blockbusters and gratified that the people making this movie, while obviously gunning for the same audience demographic, had managed to popularize 19th-century literature without completely vulgarizing it. No real-life mystery surrounding Poe’s death can compare with the sense of mystery he created in his work, and the only facts required to appreciate that one are the words on the page.