Edgar Allan Po’ Up: What liquor does to literature

Illustration by Alex Fine

Try and pry Edgar Allan Poe from all the gothic baggage, Baltimore branding, colorful Roger Corman adaptations, and mythography (drunk as hell then dead in another dude’s clothes, allegedly) for a moment, and just consider the oversized influence, a whole lot of which has something or other to do with liquor and what liquor can do to literature. What makes Poe’s work stick in your craw are the way his tales of vibe and mood read misremembered, hungover. His work nearly buckles, it wanders, it thuds, it sometimes goes inert—there is a distinct drunk wobble to Poe’s narratives.

That’s why two of the most fulgent Poe adaptations as far as I’m concerned come from Federico Fellini and Toby Keith, both boozers, but very different, and whose Poe riffs are far from respectable. Poe’s short story “Never Bet the Devil Your Head”—wherein a hard-drinking, serious gambler fond of the expression “I’ll bet the devil my head,” bets someone who turns out to actually be the devil his head that he can leap across a bridge and well, you know what happens in the end, probably—becomes Fellini’s “Toby Dammit” in 1968’s “Spirits Of The Dead,” an omnibus film adapting Poe short stories. Under Fellini, fresh off the fleshy surrealism of “Satyricon,” the story is instead about a down and out drunk actor (played by Terence Stamp in ghostly makeup) who plays the Hollywood game a little longer in order to get a Ferrari. The short begins with some handheld footage of clouds and a title card, which says or maybe even boasts that it is “liberally adapted” from the Poe story.

What follows is a stylized and terrifying series of scenes wherein Stamp sweats in a plane (the sky a kind of post-nuclear golden red) and then in a cave-like limo, makes a fumbling appearance on an awards show on a brutalist stage, and then drives off in the Ferrari, whipping around a small, empty town that is seemingly impossible to escape. Finally, he attempts to jump a bridge to get out and, well, he does not. Throughout he is followed by a little girl painted white, who is probably the devil (in Poe’s original, it’s an old guy with a stupid haircut—”his hair was parted in front like a girl’s,” Poe writes—which is maybe more terrifying than a little all-white girl, actually). “Toby Dammit” remains one of the most haunting and baffling Poe riffs—mostly inexplicable terror along with some meta stuff (whereas so much of Poe’s writing is about writing, this is a film about filmmaking) and all about that image of a young, handsome Stamp, sauced, white makeup melting off his face, driving a Ferrari into dead ends over and over again.

Thirty-eight years later, jingoistic hick with tombstone-like teeth Toby Keith’s music video for ‘It’s A Little Too Late,’ a riff on Poe’s short story, “The Cask of Amontillado.” One of Poe’s extra-petty revenge tales, “The Cask of Amontillado” is about a man who traps his friend who he thinks has wronged him behind a wall after getting him drunk on wine. The Keith video is similar to the story’s basic plot points, though tinged with some additional toxic masculinity: Here, it’s Keith walling an ex-girlfriend with shots of her worrying and struggling and confused about her fate. In the end, the music video has a twist—big dumb Toby Keith is so mad at his ex that he accidentally walled himself in and not the other way around. It’s gross and stupid and one of those misogynistic jokes that pulls back at the last minute so he can get away with it, but it also stumbles into territory few Poe adaptations confront: Poe’s own ripe, proto-Internet message board boi misogyny. ‘A Little Too Late’ is, in its own way, a dopey rejoinder to Edgar Allan “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world” Poe.

I am reminded of a 2007 New York Times article about Toby Keith (whose gimmick would become camp with 2011’s ‘Red Solo Cup’), in which writer Kelefa Sanneh observed that “country singers have . . . freedom to mix the sublime and the ridiculous, in the interests of putting on a good show,” which totally describes a whole lot of Poe’s work better than the people actually talking about Poe.

In Poe’s 1849 short story “Hop-Frog,” wherein a little person susceptible to alcohol is asked to dance and drink for the king and his cabinet and then one night after he’s just had enough he sets up an elaborate scheme involving flammable orangutan outfits which results in king and crew being lit on fire. It is one of those stories where knowing what happens is not a spoiler because the story is a bit obvious or rather, there’s nothing to spoil. And besides, what makes it compelling are the eerie, insane details. It all happens too fast, like you’re witnessing it. There’s no conventional tension; we don’t really see the set-up or anything, the only suspense is the tension of real life—when and how someone might break, which we feel throughout the story—and an inexplicable epilogue where Hop-Frog escapes with one of the other outcasts from the court and lives happily ever after. Sure, why not?

Poe himself framed “Hop-Frog” in a letter to a friend as, well, cheap trash. He sold to a “sporting magazine”—essentially, a pulp magazine, pointedly non-literary—and boasted that it was commercial, a crowd pleaser that paid well, or at least something prurient that would grab lots of eyes, he imagined. To call a story in which a little person gets blitzed and sets a bunch of people on fucking fire the old timey equivalent of clickbait might be generous; it’s more like the 1849 equivalent of some outrageous video flying across Twitter. “Cop sharts while pulling a dog dressed in a tuxedo over for reckless driving”? I dunno man, the story’s nuts.

If “Hop-Frog” is Poe’s interpretation of pop, though, that says a great deal more about Poe than popular taste at the time. Like some other paragons of macabre integrity (Three 6 Mafia, Cormac McCarthy, John Carpenter), he could not sell out even when he tried. Fortunately for him though, the world eventually came to him—his work had a kind of tectonic reshaping of the form, contributing to the invention of science-fiction, horror, detective fiction. Like lots of Poe works, “Hop-Frog” is a reversal story about the powerless becoming powerful. Simple stuff really, or simple on one level and really slippery on another.

This is also a story that a drunk would write from the heart. “Hop-Frog” is a metaphor for alcoholism and the ways in which those who are not afflicted can encourage and objectify the drinker. The revenge is they don’t get a sloshing goof there to entertain and satisfy, but a kind of cosmic, terrifying sobriety. Drunks are funny until they’re not funny anymore: They’re very scary. “Hop-Frog” as half-metaphor or almost-analogy is thrilling, and something you can totally get away with in pulp. In this sense, “Get Out” is indebted to high-concept, low-brow Poe and a response to horror’s racism, which Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, another proto-horror visionary, indulged frequently.

Here in Baltimore, well, Poe love kind of makes sense but only because this is a city that full-stop embraces John Waters—whose biggest movie involves someone eating dog shit and a man’s asshole opening and closing, opening and closing. It’s only acceptable because it is so grotesque and odd and therefore, distinctly Baltimore. Here you’ll find Poe’s influence in the strangest of places.

In Baltimore rapper Kemet Dank’s 2015 frantic posse cut titled ‘Edgar Allan Po’Up,’ Kemet chants ghost-like, “Edgar Allan Po’up/ That bitch need to roll up/ I’m 21 I’m so glad I got to grow up.” (Kemet also designed a shirt featuring the scratchy outline of Poe’s hair and a raven in profile along with the words “Edgar Allan Po’ Up” you can buy for $25.) Here Kemet goofily connects Poe to a more contemporary form of too-far-gone intoxication—lean—and expands the possibilities of Poe’s artistic descendants. Not the many gloomy dorks since Poe, not even charlatan-like Fellini or the Trump-y Toby, but brash Houstonians such as DJ Screw, Big Moe, Fat Pat, and others who popularized slowing rap down to a zooted crawl and surrounding it with otherworldly images—rivers of sizzurp, skeletons gripping styrofoam cups—and plenty of pain (go listen to DJ Screw and Point Blank’s ‘After I Die’). Indeed, Kemet’s ‘Edgar Allan Po’Up’ is on an album titled “All My Rich Friends Left Me To Die, All My Niggas Still In The Hood.”

If all of this seems like a bit much, too tangential, just consider how incredible and incredibly strange it is that Baltimore’s football team is named after one of Poe’s poems and that the three goofy mascots are named Edgar, Allan, and Poe. That’s totally a tangent too. Maybe this is why Poe has been so easy to commercialize: His work often seems loaded with meaning and devoid of it; project into it what you will. Besides, do you really want Poe explained?

Sign up for the Beat Blast!

Get news to your inbox every week!