Many of us associate Edgar Allan Poe with works like “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Raven” (“Nevermore!”). Indeed, Poe was the nineteenth century American master of the mysterious and the macabre, perhaps our first great horror writer, and certainly one of the finest short story tellers in the American tradition.
This week the COS Great Books group discussed Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” a work embodying many of Poe’s favorite motifs—insanity, moral darkness, mystery, and pervasive death. As the story opens, the narrator arrives at the manor house of his school friend, Roderick Usher, who has invited him to come help alleviate his “nervous agitation,” his “mental disorder,” his mysterious “malady.” The House of Usher is precisely what one expects from a gothic horror story: imposing walls and turrets, a bog-like tarn surrounding the ancient building, murky fog and clouds consuming the barren landscape. The narrator notices that Roderick keeps himself completely secluded in this dark and dank house, occupying himself with occult books and with his painting and music. What’s more, Roderick lives in seclusion with the only other living Usher, his extremely ill twin sister, Madeline. The narrator discovers that Madeline is cataleptic, and Roderick is desperate to save her life.
Of course, Madeline dies of a cataleptic fit. Roderick and the narrator inter her themselves, but because Roderick fears that the household physician might want to steal her body (a real fear in the nineteenth century, when fresh dead bodies were used surreptitiously for dissection), they place her sealed coffin in an old dungeon in the castle, a vault “small, damp, and entirely without means of admission for light,” a chamber just beneath the narrator’s own sleeping quarters.
Roderick suffers severe melancholy after Madeline’s death. Several nights after the burial, the house is enveloped in an almost supernatural storm. The house is slammed with violent wind and enveloped in a “density of clouds”; “huge masses of agitated vapor…[are] glowing in the unnatural light of a faintly luminous and distinctly gaseous exhalation which [hangs] about and enshroud[s] the mansion.” Roderick comes to the narrator’s room to find solace from his depressed agitation. The narrator attempts to calm his friend by reading aloud an old tale about a knight slaying a dragon.
The storm grows worse, and both men hear the groans and scrapings of someone struggling somewhere in the mansion—and they hear the iron doors of the dungeon opening. Roderick, convinced his sister is coming for him, raves: “we have put her living in the tomb!…I NOW tell you I heard her first feeble movements in the hollow coffin…MADMAN! I TELL YOU THAT SHE STANDS WITHOUT THE DOOR!” The doors fly open to reveal “the figure of lady Madeline…blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame.” With a “loud moaning cry,” she collapses onto her brother, who suffers a sudden heart attack—and both siblings fall to the floor, dead. The narrator flees the chamber in horror, and as he runs from the manor, the wind rips the walls of the house apart, and he watches the entire House of Usher—building and progeny—collapse into the murky tarn.
But the most fascinating aspect of this twisted and dark story is the narrator himself: can we believe his story? From the beginning he remarks how the events around him cause in him a “strange fancy” and flights of “imagination.” And the story he tells is almost clichéd in its use of horror story tropes—the depressing castle, the musty interiors, the crazy and isolated family, the woman buried alive, the dark and stormy night. Perhaps Poe uses the narrator, and the tale itself, to make us reflect on our own attitudes toward the macabre: after all, why do we not only let our imaginations turn to terror, but often seek terror out for entertainment? What explains our fascination with horror stories? What is it within us that embraces fear—and sometimes enjoys terrorizing others?
Dr. Joseph Teller is Professor of English at COS. Email him at [email protected].