A Constitutional and Family Evil: Ruminations on the House of Usher

September 1839 issue of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine featuring the first appearance of "The Fall of the House of Usher."

The September 1839 issue of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, a monthly periodical published out of Philadelphia, came fresh off the press with probably little fanfare.  Along with its usual assortment of sporting articles, poetry, and reviews appeared a piece of fiction that few at the time might have guessed would live on as one of the greatest enduring masterpieces of American literature, “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

In July 1839, Edgar Allan Poe signed on to serve as editor of the magazine, published by a well-to-do actor and comedian William Evans Burton. It was one of several editorships to which Poe was appointed, and he agreed to supply a certain amount of material for the magazine in exchange for $10 per week.  Along with a list of book reviews and poetry, Poe’s first story for Burton’s Magazine appeared in August 1839, followed that September by the first appearance of “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  Thanks to the wonders of modern technology and Google books, interested parties can read a scan of the story’s first appearance in those pages here.

While Poe’s later pieces, most notably his poem “The Raven” published in 1845, did garner him some critical acclaim, evidence of how his earlier works were received is difficult to find. One can only guess at what people thought of “The Fall of the House of Usher” when it first appeared.  A horror story through and through, I can only guess with a grin at the reactions of folks as they read a tale like this for the first time in such an unassuming periodical. My own first readings of Poe took place in my teens, and now re-reading the tales twenty years later I find that I missed a lot.  Not just because of the unaccustomed use of language, but also because of Poe’s subtle inferences which can slip one’s notice without careful reading.

Poe masterfully, if heavy-handedly, invokes a sense of dread from the outset of his tale.  Told from the viewpoint of a childhood friend of Roderick Usher, the descriptions are at once thick with menace and foreboding as the narrator approaches the Usher estate.  I find in reading Poe that you must throw away everything you know about modern fiction and recognize that few had really done this kind of writing before—such dark and oppressive tales that force the issue of dread upon you—and that much of what’s considered cliché these days is simply pastiche of those who first and famously trod that ground.  Such is the case here. The language has a rhythmic cadence to it, as one might expect given Poe’s poetic skills, and drips with evocations of the dismal and dire.  The narrator at once feels the gloom of the Usher grounds forced suffocatingly upon him.

(It bears mentioning that the next four paragraphs contain damnable spoilers, so if you haven’t read the tale, please don’t ruin it for yourself by traipsing through my Internet prattle.)

Roger Corman's 1960 film adaptation starred Vincent Price with a screenplay by Richard Matheson

As the narrator marvels at the desolation of the grounds, he’s shocked to find his old friend in a similar state of deterioration, physically and mentally.  The house and Roderick Usher himself are tied closely together by Poe, making each minute detail of description relevant to the horrific outcome.  The house and grounds are in an extreme state of decay; Usher is seen in deep depression, demonstrating a manic sensitivity to noises, and a supposed delirium in which he professes belief that the plants and fungi growing outside the house possess a strange sentience.  We’re also introduced briefly to Roderick’s twin sister Madeline, suffering from maladies of her own, catalepsy among them. Despondent and seemingly divorced entirely from the world around her, she drifts through and disappears from the scene, only to turn up dead the next time she appears on the page.  The gripping conclusion of the tale comes after the narrator has helped the grieving Roderick entomb his “tenderly and deeply loved sister; his sole companion for many long years.”  The final horror rears its head as—in the midst of a raging storm—the great doors to the chamber in which Roderick and the narrator sit reading are flung open to reveal the deathly visage of his sister’s “corpse,” bloody and clawed out of her tomb, stumbling against her brother and frightening him literally to death.

Nuances of the tale leave a lot to the imagination. The sister is represented as having an illness that makes her appear deathlike, thus spurring her premature burial, so her return from the grave is explained by natural means.  Likewise a glow that appears around the House of Usher during a storm and just before his sister’s gruesome reappearance is explained as a “faintly luminous and distinctly visible” gas from the tarn, attributing the glow to natural phenomenon, as well.  Certainly Roderick’s behavior is easily explained as madness, but Poe, in his inimitable way, insinuates that a spiritual sickness has come upon the house, and leaves the door open for the possibility that the eventual fall of the House of Usher is at least in part due to some supernatural force that has come against the once-great family for some unidentified evil.  This “evil” itself is referenced twice — once by Roderick, who confides in his friend that he and his sister are victims of “a constitutional and family evil.”  The second reference comes in a poem* attributed in the tale to Roderick, in which “evil things, in robes of sorrow, assailed the monarch’s high estate.”

But is the nature of the Usher evil truly unidentified?

This is where I note an important detail of this tale that utterly escaped my notice in those long-gone teenage years of mine: “That the stem of the Usher race, all time-honored as it was, had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch; in other words, that the entire family had lain in direct line of descent.” Simply put, in keeping with many ancient lines of nobility, the Ushers never bred outside the family.  Take this tidbit and add it to the mention of how “tenderly” Roderick loved his sister, how she was his “sole-companion for many years,” and an additional mention of “unnatural sensations” to which Roderick is given as a result of his illness, and you have grounds for suspicion of an incestuous relationship between them.

In the end, it is no mystery why “The Fall of the House of Usher” endures as an American literary classic.  It is rife with mood and atmosphere, nuances and layers, not the least of which is symbolism nowhere more evident than in the comparison between Roderick and his sister as the last of the Usher line, and the cracked and ruined estate itself, which falls, after their deaths, into a pile of rubble and is swallowed by the tarn.

Robert McCammon's Poe-inspired novel, Usher's Passing

The Ushers have gone on to be celebrated in film, book, and audio media.  B-movie king Roger Corman kicked off a run of Poe adaptations in 1960 with the Richard Matheson-scripted House of Usher.  The film starred Vincent Price and changed the dynamic of the story by turning Price into a kind of paternal big brother, and casting Madeline as a prisoner of the estate from which her fiancée must set her free.  The year 1984 saw an excellent and gripping homage to Poe’s story in the form of Usher’s Passing, a novel by Robert R. McCammon.  Usher’s Passing opens with a scene in which a “real” Usher tracks down Poe in a run-down bar and upbraids him for slandering his family, and then transitions to the modern-day following Rix Usher, an estranged son who returns to the grim and sprawling family estate as the clan’s patriarch lies dying.  In the book, Rix must struggle with not only what he is, but what — if anything — truly lurks on the grounds of the sprawling estate, and what’s behind the Ushers’ legacy of madness. More recently, Hellnotes reported the release of an original audio drama in the old-time-radio style, Macabre Mansion’s production of “The Fall of the House of Usher” starring Kevin Sorbo, John Billingsley, Bonita Friedericy, and Jim O’Rear as professional voice talents.  An updated film adaptation starring Austin Nichols was released in 2006.

No matter your opinion of the original tale or the adaptations and homages that have followed, there is no denying the Ushers are truly one of the greatest and best-known families in the horror genre lineage — American horror royalty.  If history is any indication, as the interest in Poe’s work as source material continues, we can expect that to remain true for many years to come.

*A footnote: The poem attributed to Roderick Usher was actually a poem by Poe that had been published as “The Haunted Palace” several months before the appearance of “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  An interesting bit of trivia related to the poem’s title goes along with the Corman-Poe adaptations mentioned above. When Corman set out to make a film adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” in 1963, the studio insisted on a Poe-related title because those films had done so well.  Thus Corman gave his Lovecraft adaptation the title of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Haunted Palace with a story credit to H.P. Lovecraft, and a screenplay by Charles Beaumont.

CHRISTOPHER FULBRIGHT is a recovering journalist turned technical writer who drinks lots of coffee, writes in dark rooms, and probably won’t live long enough read all the books in his library.  His horror novella THE BONE TREE will soon be released by Bad Moon Books, with a novel SCAVENGERS, co-written with his wife Angeline Hawkes, coming in 2011 from Elder Signs Press.  His home on the Web is http://www.christopherfulbright.com.

Comments are closed.