JH: Why a storytelling show based around Poe's stories?
MR: I'd always been a huge devotee of Poe's work. He and Bram Stoker (and Denny O'Neil who wrote for Batman!) were the first writers I really fell in love with. I can still recall my very first copy of Tales Of Mystery & Imagination, a Pan paperback with a photo of a skull on the front with a plastic spider crawling over it. I got it in the same newsagents in Victoria Road in Govanhill in Glasgow where I used to get my Batman comics! And Poe's stories lend themselves to a live storytelling format - they're short, tightly structured and they're almost always built around a first person protagonist desperate to tell his story to anyone who'll listen, which gives them to begin with almost a quality of dramatic monologue... so in storytelling you just become that protagonist and you're all set.
JH: But why update them? Why not do them in their original gothic setting?
MR: Well, I've performed them that way. Last year, for example, I did a very straight version of Fall Of The House Of Usher at Angel Row library in Nottingham. But I had a worry that if you just do these pieces as mist-shrouded 19th. century period pieces, there's a risk that to a modern audience, weaned on the grittiest kind of contemporary horror, they'd just seem like quaint period pieces. I cherish the Roger Corman Poe pictures from the 60s, I'm a big fan, but there's no getting round the fact that for an audience attuned to Kill List and the umpteenth George Romero rip-off, they're likelier, at best, to charm than to chill. I can recall the sheer shock of reading the stories for the first time after getting hold of that book in that Govanhill newsagent: the sheer relentlessness of the horror, far more so than was the case with Bram Stoker. But as the years have gone by and I've read those stories over and over again, I've grown to love them all the more, but there's no denying that that initial shock has been diminished. So the idea was that by taking the stories out of the gothic mist and putting them in the most grittily contemporary milieu, some of that shock could be recaptured. But even more than that, as a storyteller I don't, frankly, just want to be endlessly paying slavish tribute to storytellers better than myself. Where I use, in the grand tradition of oral storytelling, a preexisting story, I want it just to be a leaping off for what, at the end of the day, is a creation I can call my own. I think that's very much the case with 21st. Century Poe.
JH: Is shock is what it's all about?
MR: Oh, by no means, no. I'm of that classical, or romantic, school in horror that believes that although creepiness, scariness is important, it can never be the whole story. A really great horror story should scare you, yes, but it should always do more than scare you - there should be some weird kind of beauty, a poetry, a psychological richness and drama, thrown in. Falling For The Ushers and Ligeia - This Is (Not) A Love Song, are like the original stories, love stories first and foremost, however perverse. And in fact Heart Shaped Hole also has strong elements of that, in spite of the fact that the original Tell Tale Heart is one of those Poe tales that isn't a love story! So I've upped the romance quotient, if only in a weird, unsettling sort of way.
JH: You spoke of the Roger Corman movies. What other adaptations of Poe have you liked?
MR: The best of the lot are the two short films by Jan Svankmajer, the Czech surrealist: Pendulum, Pit & Hope and his version of Fall Of The House Of Usher. Crucially I was influenced and inspired by the way in which he filmed the stories with very minimal resources (Roger Corman was working on a Spielbergian level by comparison!) - and got closer to Poe through doing that: so the intense subjectivity of Pit & The Pendulum is conveyed through doing everything in a POV shot, with no character present other than the character through whose eyes we're looking, except at the very beginning and very end. And then he does Fall Of The House Of Usher with no actors at all: an old chair is Roderick, some cracks in the wall and wisps of cobweb are Madeline - and the effect is far closer to Poe than any more conventionally cast adaptation of Usher - imagine how inspiring that is to someone doing the Usher story as a one man show! The 50s animated version of Tell Tale Heart, narrated by James Mason, is also excellent - and again it gets close to Poe by being very stylised and subjective. Maybe it's a waste of time to adapt Poe in more conventional terms - only a kind of hyper-stylised expressionism can do him justice. Which is where I'm hoping 21st. Century Poe comes in!
21st. Century Poe is on at Solo Festival, Lord Stanley pub, Camden, 13 July (Falling For The Ushers) at 20.30 and 14 July (Heart Shaped Hole) at 19.00
AND... at the Edinburgh Fringe, Vault@Paradise Green, 11 Merchant Street, 5 - 11 Aug 17.45.