The Curious Case Of Edgar Allan Poe & The Rapper Eminem

They might by separated by craft, years and the grave but Eminem and Edgar Allan Poe have more in common than you might think, argues Lewis G. Parker

Surely, there’s nothing that potty-mouthed gangster rapper who’s never read a poem in his life has in common with Edgar Allan Poe. Just think about it for a few seconds. One of them writes long, disturbing tales with complex rhyme schemes which reveal the underlying madness, delusion and depravity in their narrators. They’re works of clear literary merit, which show an inventive use of language and expert control of narrative. The characters are so well-formed it’s like reading the graffiti scrawled on the inside of a lunatic’s mind as his life crumbles around him. They’re timeless pieces of writing from the horror genre which will still be appreciated hundreds of years from now.

And the other guy, Edgar Allan Poe? I think he’s the bloke who wrote an episode of The Simpsons. The scary one where Mr Burns sees an eagle in a tree or something. I don’t know. All I’m saying is, he’s no Slim Shady.

Or is the case really so clear cut? Is there actually an argument to say that the Detroit poet laureate Marshall Mathers III, also known as Eminem, is the reincarnation of 19th century author, poet and critic Edgar Allan Poe?

‘Medicine Ball’ vs ‘The Raven’

Let’s play a game to get the ball rolling. I’m going to select a word or a place name, and I’d like you to ad-lib a little narrative using as much rhyme, assonance and consonance with that original word as you can, until it peters out or you can bring it to a fitting end. And it has to be in the Horror or Gothic genre. Feel free to add some extra rhythms or rhymes as you see fit, but it’s not essential. So I’m looking for a long, rhyming horror narrative. Does this sound easy enough? Alright, pencils at the ready. Let’s start with the word Mecca. Take as long as you please.

How did you do? If it lasted more than five lines, I’d be impressed. 10 lines and you’ve clearly got talent. But, see, I don’t know how to break this to you. The winner, by some margin, is a guy from Detroit who came up with 26 rhymes in 17 lines. In fact, he got so many, underlining them all makes the page look like a game of word Tetris:

"Welcome to the Slim Shady Mecca, Rebecca.

It’s the village in New York right next to the Tribeca.

That’s my sector; homosexual dissector.

‘Come again?’ (Rewind, selecter.)

I said: ‘Nice rectum. I had a vasectomy, Hector,

So you can’t get pregnant if I bisexually wreck you.’

Hannibal Lecter in the guy’s section I bet you

I tantalise you, and in less than five seconds I get you.

They say, ‘Once bitten and twice shy,’

Well, lie next to the guy with five ecstasy pills

And five extra boxes of ripped condoms in quantities.

Why yes, Sir, I took the rest of the Lunesta pills from my dresser.

That’s my kinda vibe, what else should I try, Lester?

Drop-kick the bitch before the second trimester,

Perform the home abortion with Dexter?

Then I guess I’ll dig her foetus out

With a wire hanger then digest her."

(‘Medicine Ball’, Eminem, 2009)

You can count the amount of rhyme and assonance, from the relatively obvious at first, ‘Rebecca/Tribeca’, to the increasingly deviant: ‘Well lie next to’ pronounced ‘ nextah’, then stretching the possibilities of rhyme further and further with ‘Lunesta/trimester/digest her’. Then you have the secondary rhyme scheme, with ‘guys/I/shy/lie’ being interspersed for a second layer of rhythm. (I’ve only double-underlined the ones which are emphasised in the recorded version, so there are actually way more when you read them). Stylistically, I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s a breathtaking piece of work, if depressingly misogynistic. I mean, the rhymes are so thick and fast, they’re almost percussive – snare and cymbals – which propel the narrative spitting and yelping like the drums of death.

If we’d played the game two centuries ago, Edgar Allan Poe would have also done pretty well, if his poem The Raven is anything to go by. Its rhyme scheme is regular and relentless, seeming to creep down the dark stairway of the poem. The rhythm seems to be in time with the narrator rocking back and forth in the corner of the room. For every repeated word that rhymes with ‘Lenore/Nevermore,’ and ‘rapping/tapping’, the spiral of obsession becomes more consuming. While Poe’s regular rhymes and plodding meter show a gradual night of torment for his character, Eminem’s machine gun staccato identifies a speaker who is completely unhinged, absolutely cuckoo, ‘Proud to be out of his mind’. The narrator is the alter-ego/anti-hero Slim Shady. His violent and profane behaviour is an exaggeration and parody of the real-life Mathers’ own well-documented character flaws. For every pistol-whipping incident Mathers gets involved with, Shady robs a liquor store and commits murder (‘Criminal’). When Mathers has an argument with a woman, usually his ex-wife Kim or his mother, Shady, the ‘basic’ guy with no ‘guilty conscience’, beats, rapes or kills her. Just like in the explicit movies, videogames and cartoons which Eminem litters his songs with references to, the listener is never spared the graphic violence of modern life, but offered it with a Super Sized side portion of sick humour.

Slim Shady is a product of the harsh environment in which Marshall Mathers grew up; the economic cesspit of Detroit, Michigan in the 1990s, to a drug-addicted single mother in a piss-poor neighbourhood. Abused and bullied as a child (‘Brain Damage’), struggling with minimum wage jobs (‘Rock Bottom’) and turned on by drugs, women and violence, Slim Shady is a drug addict, homophobe, bad father, sociopath, rapist and psychopath. He’s the amplified, cartoon representation of what Mathers seems to despise most about himself, and fears that he may become; the guy who doesn’t restrain himself from acting on his lurid fantasies. Shady, much like his creator, is the bastard son of 20th century America; a society segregated by wealth, race and sexuality and ridden with an obsession with sex, celebrity and violence. Besides being hysterically enjoyable, like Alex’s exploits in A Clockwork Orange, Eminem’s songs also serve as an ironic kick in the yarbles to a self-righteous, moralistic society in which drugs, rape, murder, prostitution, child abuse, homophobia and poverty are rife. But as he says in ‘The Real Slim Shady’:

"There’s a million of us just like me

Who cuss like me; who just don’t give a fuck like me."

He’s the picture of Dorian Gray for America’s ghettos.

As well as having a knack for pulling the unthinkable rhyme out of his arse, Eminem’s other main parallel with Poe is his use of that chainsaw to open up everyday fantasies which are revolting and transgressive. Their narrators are people who have thoughts deemed to be sick and downright insane by society. Their speakers are colourful sketches of the criminals whose disgusting actions betray any image of suburban normality. Regular guy goes crazy – it’s a staple of the horror genre, which Poe revolutionised and Eminem is churning up. But the tales of the genre shouldn’t be treated as purely fantastical, since the best examples are the ones which contain finely observed parallels with real cases of sociological and psychopathic behaviour.

In the news, when the horrific arrives in our televisual reality with a nightclub bouncer going on a killing spree, the media and politicians do treat the actions of the real Slim Shadies – Ted Bundy, Ian Brady and Raoul Moat – as semi-fictional. They separate the killer from the rest of humanity by calling him a monster, beast or sicko, as though he comes from another universe entirely. By dehumanising the killer, it makes it easier for them to persecute him. But in fact, as Charles Manson, a man with ample experience of the subject, says: “They’re only persecuting a reflection of themselves. They’re persecuting what they can’t stand to look at in themselves. They hate themselves.” When demonising serial killers and other delinquents, part of the game is to divert attention from our own thoughts of sex and violence. Remember the tabloid which put a scare story about paedophiles on a page next to a lurid picture of a young female celebrity? Eminem and Poe’s depictions of madness and depravity show that even the most extreme behaviour is well within the capabilities of humans.

‘Berenice vs. 3 a.m.’

Berenice is a story in which a man elapses into a fantasy world inside his own head and performs violent dental surgery on his cousin. In ‘3 a.m.’ by Eminem, the narrator wakes up at McDonald’s with blood all over his clothes and dead bodies behind the counter, having gone on a killing spree in his sleep. Poe explicitly says that, as in another story, ‘The Premature Burial’, the narrator of Berenice suffers from a problem increasingly apparent in the age of the horror movie and video game: He struggles to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. The narrator of ‘3 a.m.’ has the same problem telling fiction from reality as some recent killers who’ve gone on the rampage, supposedly ‘inspired’ by Marilyn Manson, the videogames Manhunt and Grand Theft Auto, and the entire horror movie genre. In ‘3 a.m.’ the victim is made to rub lotion on her skin, as a reference to The Silence of the Lambs, of whose killer, Buffalo Bill, Slim Shady is a copy-cat.

Eminem makes use of complex rhymes again in ‘3a.m.’ But this narrator isn’t so much of a crack-pot as the one from ‘Medicine Ball’. He’s more methodical, using correct, semi-formal language as he remembers his crimes:

"I remember the first time I dismembered

A family member; December, I think it was."

It’s retold calmly and eloquently, with remarkable similarities to Poe’s aristocrat in ‘The Raven’:

"Ah, distinctly I remember, it was in the bleak December."

Then after wrapping his victim in Christmas lights and pushing him into a bath, he considers, quite reasonably, whether or not to drink the guy’s blood:

"Then just when I went to drink his blood,

I thought, “I ought to drink this bath water,

That ought to be fun.

That’s when my days of serial murder,

Manslaughter begun."

Which he then turns into a winning double couplet, rhyming ‘ought to/slaughter’ and ‘fun/begun’. The rhymed lines also have matching rhythms, as their syllabic structures are the same: ‘That ought to be fun’ and ‘Manslaughter begun’ have the same melody, which exudes nonchalance when spoken with a downward inflexion as Eminem does on record. And, if that’s not good enough, there’s the half-rhyme of ‘water/murder’ on alternate lines. Eminem keeps this high standard up to the end of the verse, continuing his ‘un’ rhymes and syllabic structure to make it four in a row:

"The sight of blood excites me;

That might be an artery, son.

Your blood-curdling screams

Just don’t seem to bother me none."

But while he states that blood excites him, this isn’t the kind of maniacal babbling of a man out of control. The rhythm of the verse remains controlled, with regular rhyme, and the syntax remains formal; ‘Seem to bother me none’ are the words of a sophisticate, which Eminem’s detractor’s won’t give him credit for, since it’s often mistaken all of his songs use the same churlish voice. But this phraseology could have come straight from a master such as Poe, whose speaker in ‘The Raven’ quoth: ‘Only this and nothing more’.

‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ vs. ‘Stan’

Eminem’s tale of the lonely fan boy is a song which treads nearest to the path of a folk and literary tradition – the murder ballad – in which Poe and H.P. Lovecraft are the godfathers. Without his knowledge, Eminem’s Stan seems to be channelling the spirit of ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, albeit from a different narrative perspective. As with many of Poe and Eminem’s characters, the first-person narrators are consumed by a madness which rouses them to murder. Is the analogue here, then, between Poe’s narrator and Stan, whose obsession with his idol drives him mad? That’s one angle, as we know that he suffers from depression and self harms, and his letters become increasingly desperate. And you could say the beating of the heart is the girlfriend in the trunk, whose presence is only revealed near the end of the song, and whose screams are heard on the record. And for another tenuous conspiracy theory, you could interpret Eminem’s heart ‘beating’ with the drums of the music, like tell-tale heart.

Cryptic analysis aside, the Eminem/Poe comparison worth considering is in the relationship between Stan, and his idol (and possible love interest) Slim Shady, whose mind, like in many Eminem songs, has been warped by one of the curses of modern life: fame. He is deluded by his own success, and consequently treats his fans like something he’d scrape off his shoe, refusing to sign autographs and leaving them out in the cold for hours. Fame twists his judgement the same as Poe’s mad narrator is warped, as he can’t feel empathy or gratitude for others. And he denies this, just as Poe’s narrator denies being mad, with a series of hollow excuses. Just as Poe’s narrator finally admits his guilt at the end of the story, the tell-tale heart for Slim Shady is the correspondence from Stan, which reveals his responsibility for the death of his fan and his girlfriend at the very end of the song.

Writing this short adulation has been a cathartic pleasure, much like listening to an Eminem record. It’s a mud bath which cleans the pores and frees the mind. I feel purer for having covered myself in the filth of humanity and seeing how much of Slim Shady remains when I wash it off. This is what his records do. They bring the listener as close to outright depravity as possible without inflicting any physical danger or discomfort. They’re a bleak picture of humanity which none of us, including Marshall Mathers, really wants to be.

But if listening to a record can make us witness or even understand a societal situation or a state of mind, it can never truly translate into the true terror of helplessness in which the characters of Eminem and Poe find themselves locked. They don’t just witness terror as we do, but live through it. It’s like the Mayor who dons a bullet proof vest to get a tour of the housing projects; he’s seeing something ugly – poverty, crime, mental illness – but he doesn’t experience it the same way Eminem and Poe’s characters do. He can leave, just as we can turn the record off or put the book down. But he, like us, is a part of those characters, and they are a part of all of us whether we realise or not. And he doesn’t know it either, but, like Slim Shady, the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe seems to be lingering somewhere inside Eminem, in some haunting apparition which either of them could have written.


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