A review of The Following

Posted by Matt Foley on January 26, 2013 in Reviews tagged with , , ,

The Following – Episode 1 (2013)

For all of its fakery, the Gothic mode is at times explicit about its reworking of certain tropes and character types. Strangely, an example that Fox‘s new drama The Following (2013) brings to mind is the titular homage of T.J. Horsley Curties’ The Monk of Udolpho (1805-6) to Lewis and Radcliffe. If American crime drama was to take Horsley Curties’ lead, the rather derivative The Following could be entitled ‘The Lecter of CSI‘ or, perhaps, ‘The Drunk Cop Archetype of Criminal Minds‘.

Why discuss it here? Its incarnation of the serial killer – Joe Carroll – is a Professor of English who is obsessed by Poe, or at least by three of his most famous works: ‘The Black Cat’ (1843), ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ (1843) and ‘The Raven’ (1845). Poe’s less known and unfinished novel The Light-House (1849), too, is said to be the inspiration for Carroll’s desire to escape prison and finish his ‘artful’ killing spree. Carroll is also a novelist. His The Gothic Sea, however, failed to make a splash on release. Until, that is, Carroll created his true magnum opus by enacting a series of murders, gouging out his victims’ eyes for effect, and scribbling Poe quotations in blood at the crime scene. Any publicity is good publicity – and after his arrest his book became a ‘cult’ hit. Its new popularity leads to a number of devotees and ‘followers’ pledging their allegiance.

It is not just Carroll who has a penchant for the literary. Ryan Hardy, our vodka-drinking detective played by Kevin Bacon, complete with scars and pacemaker, has written a monograph on Carroll’s spree. Having caught him before, he is the first man the FBI call when Carroll escapes. And so the premise is set.

If you hadn’t already guessed, The Following appropriates Poe’s literary work rather reductively, as Laura Miller has pointed out this week. Poe’s rich symbolism is reduced merely to denotation. For example, the gouging of the ‘eye’ – the signature and burlesque kill-move of Carroll and his cult – is explained by Hardy simply as representing the taking of the victim’s soul. This is not a reading that resonates particularly with the complexities and enigmas that underpin the violence of ‘The Black Cat’, for example. 

The Following, too, could have paid more attention to Poe’s literary technique. Yes, there is a cursory understanding of Poe’s artistic ethic –  ‘the artist must suffer through art to truly create art’ – but there is none of Poe’s fashioning of fiction at work: his mastery of uncanny doubling, his characters’ melancholic musings, the overwhelming sense of spatial claustrophobia, and the refined narrative suspense. True, there is body horror. But these stagings merely mimic moments of subjective violence (to use Zizek’s general term), without any of the artistry of suspense and doubling that sets-up, and contrasts with, the violent moment in Poe’s short stories.

In one sense, such a surface-based use of Poe could have been a side issue if The Following had more rounded characterisation and was more subtly paced. But, in spite of a consistent use of analepsis to add backstory, and its figuring of scarring as a way to explore traumatic memory, on this evidence the series will struggle to match the popularity and longevity of the crime fictions it so liberally borrows from.

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About the Author – Matt Foley

has written 116 articles on The Gothic Imagination.

I am a Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Manchester Metropolitan University. I hold particular research interests in modernism, ghost stories, Gothic acoustics, and literary theory. As for my writing on here, I generally blog on haunting, popular culture, and literature from the first half of the 20th Century.

Discussion – 4 Comments

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  • Laura Kremmel says:

    A really well-written review, Matt! I think you’ve actually managed to pull more meaning out of the pilot episode than I did when I watched it. While I’m disappointed in the heavy-handed and surface use of Poe (He gouged out the eyes?! Must be a reference to Poe and the “window of the soul! …why does he want the soul, again?) I really like your mention of publicity and murder, as if the murders take the place of the writing itself or at least complement it. I’m interested in those aspects, and I do think the cult is also interesting. I’m anxious to see more about that and how they negotiate an appropriation of both writers (Poe and Carroll) into their stunts.

    The premise of the first episode reminds me very much of Red Dragon. The use of Blake there was a bit more subtly introduced, however. I can only hope another priceless archival document will be ingested by one of the cult followers!

  • Matt Foley says:

    Hi Laura, thanks for the comment – yeah Red Dragon is definitely one to compare! I had a thought after writing about one moment that was quite a nice use of Poe too. During a flashback, when she is testifying at Carroll’s trial, the girl who Carroll *almost* kills on the first spree (her character name is Sarah Fuller) says she drove his knife further into herself – a kind of masochistic impulse that rings true with Poe’s ‘Spirit of Perverseness’ and its irrational, self-defeating character (put forward at the beginning of ‘The Black Cat’).

    I did think it was too crammed (for want of a better word), though, and the characters felt a bit flat. Maybe the pilot had to do too much to set the premise for the series. I’ll keep my eyes peeled (not gouged) to see how the cult develops.

  • Marissa says:

    Did anyone think of Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening, when they described the ending of The Gothic Sea? Swimming out toward the horizon, with ambiguity as to whether she lived or died?

  • Matt Foley says:

    HI Marissa – I’ve never read it, it might be an interesting avenue to explore though, thanks for the lead! How did you find the show in general? I’ve not seen the second one as yet but might try to get hold of a copy (it’s hard on this side of the Atlantic) to see if the cult develops.