Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
Today we’re looking at Edgar Allan Poe’s classic “The Fall of the House of Usher,” first published in the September 1839 issue of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. If you still need the spoiler warning, we promise not to tell your English teacher.
“Shaking off from my spirit what must have been a dream, I scanned more narrowly the real aspect of the building. Its principal feature seemed to be that of an excessive antiquity. The discoloration of ages had been great. Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves. Yet all this was apart from any extraordinary dilapidation. No portion of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones.”
Unnamed narrator (let’s start calling this ubiquitous fellow UN) travels under lowering clouds through a dull autumn day. The end of his journey is an ancient manor house, shrouded in fungi yet curiously intact. Decaying trees and rank sedges surround it, as does a dark, dank tarn. (For the uninitiated, that’s a small mountain lake, suggesting that poor decision making, at least about construction sites, may run in the family.) Its atmosphere of “insufferable gloom” infects UN with same.
He has come to the melancholy House of Usher, ancestral home of his boyhood friend Roderick Usher. Roderick has begged UN to come cheer him up, for he suffers from various nervous disorders common to his line. Hypersensitive to most stimuli, hypochondriacal and anxious, he’s holed up in a lofty chamber also tenanted by books, musical instruments and shadows. Meeting Roderick for the first time in years, UN is struck by the pallor and luster of eye that now exaggerate his friend’s always singular features. Roderick’s joy at seeing UN seems genuine, though overplayed. He confesses that his moods swing radically from the feverishly vivacious to the sullen to the agitated. His greatest phobia is FEAR itself – it’s not any event in itself that he dreads, but that the terror it inspires will be his death. He’s also oppressed by the superstitious notion that some spiritual affinity binds him to the House.
Add to that the illness of his beloved sister Madeline, long his only companion. Doctors are baffled by her symptoms of apathy, wasting and cataleptic fits. She passes through the chamber at one point, unconscious of UN or Roderick, a living specter. The sight brings Roderick to passionate tears. Later that evening, he tells UN Madeline has finally taken to what he fears will be her deathbed.
Over the next few days UN and Roderick occupy themselves with reading, art and music. Roderick’s painting reflects, per UN, a “distempered ideality.” He seems a sort of abstract expressionist – a painter of ideas whose canvasses awe as even Fuseli’s cannot. The most concrete of these depicts a long and smooth white vault, mysteriously lit to a “ghastly and inappropriate splendor.” Roderick’s instrument of choice is the guitar, on which he improvises wildly, sometimes reciting a bit of original poetry (conveniently provided by Poe as “The Haunted Palace”). UN interprets these verses, about the dissolution of a great monarch and his court, to represent Roderick’s subconscious understanding that his own reason is tottering.
Madeline dies, but Roderick insists on temporarily interring her not in the distant family burial ground but in a vault beneath the house. UN doesn’t argue, agreeing that her doctors seemed untrustworthy and her symptoms “singular.” He notes that her corpse retains a mocking blush of life and that a smile lingers on her lips. Also that someone once seems to have stored gunpowder in that same vault, suggesting that poor decision making may run in the family.
In the following days Roderick’s pallor grows more ghastly, his luminous eyes dull, and he wanders the house without object or sits in an attitude of profound attention, as if listening to sounds UN can’t hear. UN fears his friend’s delusions begin to infect him as well.
One tempestuous night, UN is too uneasy to sleep. Roderick joins him, restraining hysteria, and points out the strange gaseous illumination that surrounds the house. An electrical phenomenon, UN says. He tries to distract his friend by reading aloud from a trite romance about Ethelred, hero of the Trist. But the sounds he reads about are echoed from deep below the house: the rending of wood, a grating shriek, the clang of metal on metal. Rocking in his chair, Roderick gibbers low. UN bends to make out his words. Roderick mutters that he’s heard Madeline stirring in her coffin for days, but he dared not speak of it, because poor decision making runs in his family. Now she’s escaped – hence the sounds from below. Now she’s coming to upbraid Roderick for his haste in interring her.
Springing to his feet, Roderick screams that he’s no madman—Madeline is even then outside UN’s room. As if propelled by his frenzy, the doors open. There’s Madeline, reeling on the threshold, burial gown bloodied, her terrible struggle to free herself too evident. In true death-agony now, she collapses on Roderick and bears him to the floor, a corpse himself. The FEAR he feared has finally killed him.
UN flees into the howling storm, just in time it turns out. A weird glare makes him look back – it issues from the blood-red moon that rises behind the manor, visible through a crack that zigzags across the façade. The crack widens until the entire House of Usher collapses into the tarn, which closes sullenly over its fragments.
What’s Cyclopean: Poe’s not shy about purplefying every part of speech. Nouns: the oft-mentioned tarn. Verbs: an atmosphere that reeks up from decayed trees. And, of course, adjectives: phantasmagorical armorial trophies, encrimsoned light. But the clear winner is the poetic description of a throne, or possibly its ruler, as “porphyrogene,” which beats any mere mention of porphyry by a mile. (Likely meaning = born to the purple. Or if it’s the throne itself, it could be “born from porphyry.”)
The Degenerate Dutch: Roderick Usher’s nose, “of a delicate Hebrew model,” is as close as the story comes to considering such pedestrian everyday details as ethnicity. Which is to say, not very close.
Mythos Making: The threadlike fungi enmeshing the House may give it a vegetable sentience—a very Lovecraftian idea. Perhaps the house is ancestral to the various fungous entities that populate the Mythos?
Libronomicon: The narrator and Roderick Usher read an extensive set of maudlin and gothic favorites, too numerous to list here. Usher’s “chief delight” is the Vigilae Moruorum Secundum Chorum Ecclesiae Maguntinae, a service for the dead from an obscure church. Sound effects for the story’s finale are provided by Sir Launcelot Canning’s “Mad Trist.” Both books are Poe’s own invention.
Madness Takes Its Toll: The house, and the House, show signs of clinical depression, Roderick Usher appears to have developed a rather extreme sensory integration disorder, and the author mentions opium suspiciously often in a story that involves no actual drugs whatsoever.
How is it, by all the gods of the outer realms, that Poe is lauded as part of the English canon, while Lovecraft is so often mocked for melodrama and eccentric language? Because I did not misremember from high school: Poe is among the most melodramatic goths who ever gothed, a protogoth. And his language can be described in many ways, but restraint plays no factor in any of them.
Like Lovecraft at his most manic, there’s an energy and a delight to Poe’s language; I roll my eyes but enjoy the hell out of the ride. Poe’s influence on Lovecraft here is clear, and one encounters words that obviously reverberated in Howard’s head for years until they bounced out again: gibbering, porphyry, etc. But another influence is in an idea of what a story should do. Lovecraft said of his own work—and this goal echoes down through the whole horror genre—that his primary end was to produce a mood. But where Lovecraft usually can’t seem to avoid such added baubles as plot and even worldbuilding, “Fall of the House of Usher” is purely a mood piece.
For me, at least, “Usher” suffers as a result. This may be partly my own preference for reading with spec-fic protocols rather than horror protocols, so that I keep looking for some underlying logic, but it’s also the sheer blunt force of the attempt. Everything is gorgeous imagery and emotion. Again and again, Poe emphasizes the oppressive despair of the House, both building and tenant. He states right at the beginning that this depression has no aspect of romanticism about it—and then proceeds to romanticize it up, down, and sideways. He wants to have his poetic madness, and yet color it with descriptions of real depression. I want literature to stop thinking clinical depression makes for a delightful read, pleasantly removed from the everyday problems of the reader. (I realize I can hardly use Poe to illustrate a modern trend, but my impatience is longstanding: I’ve wanted this since Lord Byron and both Shelleys.)
On the “unwilling to drop spec-fic protocols” front, I also really want to know more about Roderick Usher’s relationship with Madeline Usher. If you think your sister might be buried alive, get down to your inexplicably explosive-lined crypt and freaking rescue her! Why would you not? Has Roderick got some reason not to want his twin around? What’s going on? But if there are clues, I missed ‘em. He doesn’t try to rescue her Because Madness, and Because Mood. And then everything sinks into the tarn, either Because Gothic or Because Explosive-Lined Crypt.
Probably there is a really awesome story from Madeline’s point of view, about being stuck as the romantically ill fridge woman in a gothic horror story. With a psychic connection to your brother who’s too busy being gothy to open the door. There’s horror for you.
Usher’s narrowly descended House must have dovetailed well with Lovecraft’s own genealogical obsessions. One sees their influence—the singular line continuing, through memetics if not genetics—in final scions returning to doomed ancestral mansions in “Rats in the Walls” and “Moon-Bog,” or in once great lines fallen into degeneracy in “Lurking Fear” and “Arthur Jermyn.” And perhaps also in the malign influence of architecture itself—form shaping family every time a house happens, dreadfully, to be over a century old, gambrelled, or cyclopean.
Similarly, the narrator’s relationship with Roderick Usher presages many in the Lovecraft canon: one of those obsessive-unto-the-point-of-following-the-plot-all-the-way-down homoerotic friendships that drive everything from “The Hound” to “Herbert West.” Narrator waxes excessively poetic about his friend’s beauty and fascination—poetic enough to move beyond a simple crush into a truly Lovecraftian mélange of attraction, fear, and repulsion normally reserved for books and aliens. “Your hair is difficult to connect with any idea of simple humanity,” while complimentary in context, would make a particularly ambivalent candy heart.
[While Anne is recovering from a birthday spent consuming too much alcoholic root beer, aka “Aw, this is kid’s – hic – stuff,” we feature another excerpt from the journals of Lovecraft’s psychoanalyst and fellow in ice cream bingeing, Dr. Wolfgang Siegfried Gregor Freud.]
February 28, 1927:
While we were enjoying a bowl or two of our favorite confection, Herr Lovecraft again insisted that I must read his illustrious countryman and literary forebear, Herr E. A. Poe. He has devoted an entire chapter to this author in his recently completed monograph, Supernatural Horror in Literature, a most interesting document. The chapter begins soberly enough, describing Herr Poe’s psychologically realistic approach to terror and the terrible; however, as is our friend Herr Lovecraft’s wont, it soon lapses into feverish metaphor, in which Herr Poe’s oeuvre is “a moon-nourished garden of gorgeous poison fungi,” a “raven whose noisome beak pierces the heart,” “ghouls that toll iron bells in pestilential steeples,” “shocking spires and domes under the sea,” et cetera, und so weiter.
Midway through a particularly piquant maple walnut, Herr Lovecraft prevailed, and I agreed to read Herr Poe’s supposed masterwork, “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
My first thought was, ach, talk about your pathetic fallacy, as Herr Ruskin called the attribution of human emotions and behavior to natural or even inanimate objects. All things from rot-stricken trees to lichen-encrusted stones to bodies of stagnant water share in a monolithic gloom itself shared by members of the doomed House of the Ushers. And well might they be doomed, given their hereditary tendency to hypochondriasis, cycling mania and melancholy, and psychosexual phobias/philias.
I am not surprised by Herr Lovecraft’s attraction to this tale, for it speaks to a number of his fixations: the diseased or “haunted” house (also as metaphor for the diseased body/mind); the enfeeblement of inbreeding; the power of place and past over the individual; the revenant; vampirism; the link between genius and madness. Roderick Usher, for instance, may remind one of Herr Lovecraft’s own creations, the painter Pickman and the violin virtuoso Zann.
But what about the craftily implied naughty bits? Have we not here, in the Ushers, a case of incest, repressed depravity perhaps, rather than actual illicit coupling? As a line, we are told, the Ushers have never “branched out.” Much intermarriage of cousins, one supposes, and who knows what on the side. Shades of good Herr Lovecraft’s Martenses! In Roderick and Madeline’s long and exclusive intimacy I read more than ordinary filial devotion. At the sight of his ailing sister, Roderick sheds “passionate” tears. Of all his paintings one ventures beyond abstraction, and it is of a long, white, smooth-walled tunnel unmistakably vaginal in meaning. Moreover, this tunnel or vault is lit to “inappropriate” splendor. Inappropriate indeed!
More and more twisted, Roderick inters – implants – the dormant Madeline in a tomb-womb, from which she will violently birth herself anew. Hearing her stirrings, why does he neglect to investigate? He claims dread; I sense the keenest of anticipation. In the tumult of storm (natural and personal upheaval/arousal), Madeline returns, newborn to the blood on her shroud, a caul she still wears. In a reversal of the usual gender roles, it is she who bursts in through the doors beyond which Roderick crouches in ecstatic terror. It is she who falls on him and bears him down, upon which he achieves the climax of death!
And then the House falls down, cleft through its center. Narrator escapes at any rate, for he is chaste.
Shall we consider the story within the story with its rampant knight and slain guardian dragon and falling shield? Perhaps another time, for my Rocky Road is melting into what too much resembles a dank tarn reflective of depravity and passively-sullenly willing to swallow it up.
Note: What is this self-luminous mist generated by the climactic storm? It recalls a certain color out of space, while the soul-draining influence of the House of Usher recalls a certain Shunned House. Truly a trove of subtle fore-echoes.
Now where’d I put that verdammte spoon….
Next week we cover Lovecraft and Winifred Jackson’s “The Crawling Chaos,” in which Nyarlathotep, deity of the titular epithet, is Sir Not Appearing In This Story.
Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” will be available from the Tor.com imprint in Spring 2017. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with the recently released sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.