Horror Fiction 102: The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe
In Horror Fiction 101, Gothic literature was the main focus; haunted castles, far-away lands, powerful landscapes, and heroines running from evil villains. The Castle of Otranto marked the beginning of the genre, and Ann Radcliffe created a whole legacy. As time passed, literature changed. The haunted house remains, but with some alterations and additions, and the hunter’s domain to pursue its victim grows now that it is no longer confined to the four walls of a house. The boundaries between the rational and the supernatural are blurred; evil becomes attractive and impossible to escape, and the hunter and the prey seek each other. Victorian horror dawns.
Horror Fiction 102 will deal with Victorian horror and it will be divided into six different chapters:
Horror Fiction 102: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert L. Stevenson
Horror Fiction 102: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Horror Fiction 102: The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe
Horror Fiction 102: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Horror Fiction 102: The Phantom Coach by Amelia B. Edwards
When Edgar Allan Poe first started publishing his short fiction, short stories were not regarded as serious literature. His work was often dismissed due to the brevity of his stories and the Romantic elements that composed his narrative. While his contemporaries were concerned with more realistic approaches and criticism of the morality and society of the time, Poe was writing through a very Gothic lens, focused on the sublime, the atmosphere, and the emotions. Nevertheless, his short fiction is now regarded as masterpiece, and “The Fall of the House of Usher” is without a doubt one of his most famous and critically acclaimed short stories.
“The Fall of the House of Usher” was first published in 1839 in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine and it was considered a well-written story but marred by Germanism (Walker, 1966, p. 585). What Poe’s contemporaries meant by that was the Romantic and Gothic elements that sustained the narrative; the atmosphere, the haunted house, the description from the inside and the outside of the house, “Usher” is a true heir to Gothic fiction. Upon his arrival, the narrator has “a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded [his] spirit,” he describes “an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime” (Poe, 2011, p. 231). On the very first page of the story, Poe is already using the Gothic atmosphere of mystery and uneasiness to characterize the mansion. However, as a story that fits into Victorian horror, the House of Usher is not just a mansion with a dark secret, rebelling against a usurper like in Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto”; in Poe’s story, the house is a double.
As it has already been explained in previous issues of this Victorian horror series, Victorian writers were obsessed with the concept of the double, from the doppelganger in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” to the portrait in “Dorian Gray.” Poe carefully constructs a haunted house story where the house acts as a double for the family that lives in it. Roderick and Madeline Usher are the last of the Usher family, which “had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch” (Poe, 2011, p. 232), meaning that there was always just one heir to continue the family line. The narrator explains to the reader how he received a letter from Roderick Usher, his childhood friend, describing an illness that has taken over him. Throughout the narration, the reader discovers that Usher is convinced that the illness came with the family, his sister is also afflicted and very close to death. Furthermore, Roderick explains how neither he nor his sister had left the house for many years, arguing that was an added factor to the downfall of the family line. Poe is repeatedly using the double in the story: Roderick and Madeline are twins and therefore doubles to each other, the noun “house” is used to refer to both the architectural structure and the family, hence the title, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” This connection between the house and the family is more and more evident as the story progresses, in fact, in the last scene of the story Madeline collapses in Roderick's arms, who also dies then, and the narrator leaves the house just in time to see it collapse. It is also relevant how the house falls into the tarn, where upon his arrival the narrator saw a reflection of the house that filled him with dread, another instance of doubling. “Usher dies with Madeline, the two die with the mansion, the mansion dies with -into- its reflection in the tarn: a world of growing and narrowing affinities has reached upon its centre” (Aguirre, p. 126).
However, Poe takes it one step further and he narrator himself starts to become a double. It is not uncommon for Poe to create a first-person narrator, what makes this one unique is the lack of description surrounding his character. The reader knows nothing about him apart from his gender, there is no name, no physical description, and, apart from the fact that he and Roderick Usher were childhood friends, no background story. What the reader knows however is that the narrator is trying very hard to convince the reader of his rational mind; there are many instances throughout the story where the narrator describes supernatural events and tries to give them a rational explanation. This is also a common element in Poe’s fiction, there is a “counterbalancing of extreme rationalistic logic and irrationality, and more often than not the extremely logical proceeds from the mouths of the irrational madmen that people the tales” (Hoffman, 1965, p. 162). The analysis of the rational versus irrational, the self versus the other, in “Usher” is hinted at in the poem “The Haunted Palace” which Usher recites to the narrator.
This poem was published a few months before the publication of “Usher” and it perfectly explains the troubles populating Roderick Usher. It deals with a king that reigned over a kingdom ruled by Thought, however, something went wrong, and some “evil things” came and destroyed the king and his kingdom. As Michael J. Hoffman explains in “The House of Usher and Negative Romanticism,” the destruction of the Palace of Thought in the poem corresponds with the loss of Roderick’s rationality, and as he dives deeper and deeper into the house, so does the rationality on the narrator’s mind. When he first arrives at the mansion, he encounters a doctor and some servants, but he never sees them again; after expending some time with Roderick he starts to behave like him and feel the symptoms of his illness and his madness. He says so himself: “It was no wonder that his condition terrified—that it infected me. I felt creeping upon me, by slow yet certain degrees, the wild influences of his own fantastic yet impressive superstitions” (Poe, 2011, p. 241). Slowly but surely, the narrator is becoming a double to Roderick Usher.
Furthermore, the time the narrator spends in the House of Usher can also be interpreted as a journey inside the mind of Usher. As a double of the family, the house is the family, entering the house would therefore represent entering the mind of the last surviving heirs to the family. In fact, Roderick is fully convinced that the house is a sentient being and as a representation of the family, it is also ill. When the narrator first arrives at the house, he describes a small a “barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn” (Poe, 2011, p. 233), this was the first of many signs that the House of Usher was close to its downfall. In addition, the description of the house as having “eye-like windows” connects with the idea of it symbolizing a head or the mind of its inhabitants. The Palace of Thought and its king are slowly crumbling under the weight of irrationality.
“The Fall of the House of Usher” has become a masterpiece in short fiction and a key work to understanding horror fiction. The evolution of the haunted house theme from the Gothic horror era to the Victorian period is evident in the tale. It drinks from the Gothic atmosphere with its gloomy sky, its dark waters, and the mysterious mansion that feels too alive. It also expresses the Victorian anxieties with the fight between the rational and the irrational, the self and the other, the double that comes to h(a)unt humans, and a world that can no longer be explained without the supernatural. The house, the twins, the family, and the House of Usher as one being that has lived apart from the outside world for such a long period of time that it can only collapse on itself.
Aguirre, M. (1980). The Closed Space: Horror Literature and Western Symbolism. Manchester University Press. Manchester, England.
Hoffman, M. J. (1965). “The House of Usher and Negative Romanticism.” Studies in Romanticism. Vol. 4, Nº 3, pp. 158-168. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore, United States of America. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25599641?read-now=1&refreqid=excelsior%3A7577c12eead3782300d9565c259d916d&seq=11
Fisher, B. J. (2004). “Poe and the Gothic tradition.” The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, England.
Peeples, S. (2004). “Poe’s ‘constructiveness’ and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’” The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, England.
Poe, E. A. (2011). Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. The Penguin Complete. Penguin Books. London, England.
Walker, I. M. (1966). “The ‘Legitimate Sources’ of Terror in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’” The Modern Language Review. Vol. 61, No. 4, pp. 585-592. Modern Humanities Research Association. United Kingdom. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3724024?read-now=1&seq=3
Sánchez, S. C. (2018). The Fall of the House of Usher. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/26/books/review/sergio-garcia-sanchez-edgar-allen-poe-fall-of-the-house-of-usher.html
Rackham, A. (1935). Tales of Mystery and Imagination. [Illustration]. https://es.wikisource.org/wiki/Archivo:31_rackham_poe_fallhouseofusher.jpg
Clarke, H. (2009). Cuentos de imaginación y misterio. [Illustration]. Libros del Zorro Rojo. https://publicdomainreview.org/collection/harry-clarke-s-illustrations-for-poe-s-tales-of-mystery-and-imagination-1919