Woe to Edgar Allan Poe. In life, the writer was ill-served by fortune: orphaned as a toddler, an indebted college dropout, Poe moved often, usually to dodge creditors. His beloved wife (and, um, first cousin) died in the Bronx at age 24; two years later Poe himself was dead. The circumstances of his death remain mysterious -- the 40-year-old left Richmond, Va., en route to Philadelphia and turned up five days later at a pub in Baltimore, where he was delirious, wearing someone else’s clothes and was at the end of a deathly bender or something else that drove him into the arms of the grim reaper.
Yes, his stories were dark. Characters are buried alive, blackmailed, overwhelmed by guilt; they exact revenge and try and fail to escape fate; they are tortured and even murdered.
What is not in any of his work: A serial killer. Or a death cult.
So, to “The Following.” In the show, Kevin Bacon is former FBI agent Randy Hardy, who locked up an English professor-turned-serial killer. The professor, Joe Carroll (played by James Purefoy) was a Poe expert.
By some twist of logic, we’re meant to believe his Poe expertise led him to slaughter comely co-eds in a dorm. But... that’s so un-Poe! In “The Murder in the Rue Morgue,” sometimes called the first detective story, we’re on the side of the investigator, not the criminal. When we’re meant to observe the creepy gothic horror of his stories, it’s the sense of inevitability or fate that gives the reader a frisson, not the gore: someone is buried alive, or dissolves in a moment.
The show’s core idea of a serial killer came long after Poe himself. Poe died in 1849, and the term serial killer took hold more than 100 years later, after midcentury murder sprees by the likes of John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy.
Maybe that’s who professor Carroll should have been studying.
Instead, we’re led to believe that the power of Poe-plus-Carroll has spawned a killer-suicide cult. A naked woman scrawls “The Raven” all over her body, then, trance-like, stabs herself in the eye with an icepick -- in front of Bacon et al. Two men fake a gay relationship so they can slaughter a posse of cops and stage a kidnapping (nevermind that if they’d gotten started a few hours earlier, they could have skipped the part about trussing up the officers and just taken the kid while he was having a snack). Murderous minions await for the rest of the season.
At the Atlantic, Richard Lawson writes, “The show’s worst sin is the Carroll character, whose motivations and thought processes are as corny and daftly pretentious as anything in a Christopher Rice novel. He likes Edgar Allan Poe, see, and there’s some blah blah about the death of a woman being the most beautiful thing in the world.” The death of a woman seems to be a misreading of “Annabel Lee,” Poe’s poem about his undying love for a woman who has died.
There is an awful lot of blood. The murder body count is very, very high. This is not very Poe-ish at all.
There is one nice Poe touch. When Carroll stabs Hardy in a tussle before he’s arrested, he does it in the chest -- injuring his heart so that he needs a pacemaker. Remember the ticking in Poe’s “The Telltale Heart”? Pacemaker? You with me?
As unfair as “The Following” is to Poe, woe, too, is Kevin Bacon. The man who is connected to all of pop culture by six degrees (or less) deserves better.