I started this little excursion into horror with Edgar Allan Poe’s Silence: A Fable, which remains one of the best I’ve read so far. So I thought I’d return to Poe and take a look at The Fall of the House of Usher for this week’s…
Probably one of the best known horror stories of all time, this gothic tale of madness and terror stands up well to the test of time. Our narrator has received an urgent request to visit an old school friend, Roderick, the last male descendant of the House of Usher. On arrival, he finds Roderick suffering from an unspecified illness that manifests itself as extreme sensitivity – to food, to sound, to light. His condition is worsened by the knowledge that Madeline, his much-loved sister (perhaps too much-loved), is dying.
Poe uses every word carefully to suck the reader into an atmosphere of impending horror. The fall of the House of Usher refers to the physical building as well as to these last family members, with the decay of each seemingly mirrored in the other. Our first picture is of the house as our narrator sees it on his approach – a gothic pile set in a dark valley where even nature is decaying.
I looked upon the scene before me – upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain – upon the bleak walls – upon the vacant eye-like windows – upon a few rank sedges – and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees – with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of a reveller upon opium – the bitter lapse into every-day life – the hideous dropping off of the veil.
Roderick’s illness appears to be primarily of the mind, perhaps brought on by the grief and depression of losing his sister, but it has physical symptoms – not least of which is an aversion to light, so that the rooms are kept always in semi-darkness. Poe refers more than once to his condition being like the withdrawal symptoms of an opium-eater, the same metaphor as he uses to describe the miasma of unease that surrounds and pervades the house.
He roamed from chamber to chamber with hurried, unequal, and objectless step. The pallor of his countenance had assumed, if possible, a more ghastly hue – but the luminousness of his eye had utterly gone out. The once occasional huskiness of his tone was heard no more; and a tremulous quaver, as if of extreme terror, habitually characterized his utterance. There were times, indeed, when I thought his unceasingly agitated mind was laboring with some oppressive secret…
When Madeline dies and Roderick has her body placed in a sealed cellar…well, we know it’s all going to go horribly wrong. Roderick himself is persuaded that doom is at hand, but seems unable to act to prevent it – is he indeed actively willing it? Although Poe uses similar themes in other stories, his beautifully paced writing still manages to ratchet up the suspense as we reach the horrifying climax.
Perhaps it’s just because so many schlock films and books have followed in Poe’s footsteps, but I’m afraid that, though I greatly admired the writing and enjoyed reading the story, my hair stayed unraised throughout and my spine barely tingled. But there’s no doubt that Poe is a master of the gothic tale, and this is well worth reading to see how he uses words and imagery to build an atmosphere of fear and tension.
Fretful porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯
Overall story rating: 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀