There is a notable nightmarish and intangible quality to “The Fall of the House of Usher,” as there is in many of Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic masterpieces—a vague sense of foreboding, a floating uneasiness, or shadowy moodiness that is beyond the power of words to express…
Enigmatic. Eccentric. Erratic. Melancholic. Alcoholic. Neurotic.
But above all else, Fantastic.
Throughout his 40 tormented years of life, Edgar Allan Poe was widely hailed as a genius for the black brilliance of his art. He is the undisputed master of the macabre and the father of the supernatural and psychological thriller. Conjured over a century ago, Poe’s phantasmagorias remain unparalleled to this day in their rich, velvety, cerebral, and suffocating horror. For any civilized reader, there is no better way to usher in the howling fall than with “The Fall of the House of Usher,” a tale observing its 175th anniversary of publication this September; and there is no better way to encounter the terrors of this tale than with a glimpse of the terrors of its teller.
A wealthy Virginia tobacco and tombstone merchant named John Allan took in the orphaned Edgar Poe, born January 19, 1809. The young Poe was eventually driven from his foster father by hatred into a life of drifting destitution. He became a writer as a means of survival and emotional release, and his writings were dominated by death, nightmares, corruption, madness, and by the haunting of the subconscious psyche. Edgar Allan Poe is the quintessential tortured artist.
From murder to necrophilia, Poe peeled away social veneer and pried into the inhumanities of humanity while he himself wrestled with inescapable misery and misfortune. Poe suffered under a rudimentary pathology: Fear. He was a nervous creature who played out his paranoia through his protagonists and their grotesque adventures. “The Fall of the House of Usher” is perhaps one of the strongest instances of how his stories mirrored his mind and his demons, participating in a Freudian death wish and the horror of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Roderick Usher, like Edgar Allan Poe, was an artistic man. Roderick Usher, like Edgar Allan Poe, was an aesthetic man. Roderick Usher, like Edgar Allan Poe, was a sick man, plagued by the expectancy of his greatest fears; fears that were Poe’s greatest fears as well: the loss of love and the terror of premature burial (called “the most terrific” of quandaries by the author). There is a self-destructive motif in the guilty trepidations of Roderick Usher that was also a force in Edgar Allan Poe’s own tragedy.
Roderick Usher was tottering on the brink of mental collapse just as the ancestral House of Usher tottered on the brink of physical collapse, as though man and mansion shared a common spirit and common state. From both, an eerie environmental gloom exuded, tainting all within their sphere and rendering everything cheerless, comfortless, and careworn. Sensing and shrinking from his inevitable fall into madness, Roderick Usher summons an old schoolmate to stay with him and divert him from his disturbing phantasms and disconsolate meditations. Upon the wary guest’s arrival, Usher apprises him of the character of his mysterious, mentally-induced malady of soul and body—as well as with the intelligence that his twin sister, the Lady Madeline, resides also within the crumbling walls succumbing to diseases of her own. Usher is dominated by the knowledge that the time will come when she must expire to her wasting ailment, and he dreads it as he awaits it, anticipating his ultimate fears—that he will lose his sole companion, and that he will inadvertently suppose her dead before death comes and put her living in the tomb. These are his terrors, and yet he embraces them as he obsessively paints images of crypts and writes dirges of shattered joys and haunted palaces. There can hardly be a starker image of the self-propagating distress of the subconscious. Usher is a demonstration of the tenuous balance between sanity and insanity—a balance Poe certainly struggled with himself.
This duality or division between fear and fascination is expressive of Poe’s struggle with his own inner-selves: the self-destructive subconscious against the responsible and respectable consciousness. The tribulations of split-personality complexes certainly bears on the complexities of Roderick Usher, who possesses symptoms of a bizarre bipolarism as he now lingers peaceably over funeral missals, now flying into hysterics over the action of a storm. Whether crazed or catatonic, everything in the twisted, tangled mind of Roderick Usher is fixed upon disaster. Usher, like his unfortunate creator, trembles before the inevitability of his doom. The lament of Roderick Usher could easily be imagined pouring from the anguished heart of Edgar Allan Poe:
I must perish in this deplorable folly. Thus, thus, and not otherwise, shall I be lost. I dread the events of the future, not in themselves, but in their results. I shudder at the thought of any, even the most trivial, incident, which may operate upon this intolerable agitation of soul. I have, indeed, no abhorrence of danger, except in its absolute effect—in terror. In this unnerved—in this pitiable condition—I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR.
In 1836, Edgar Allan Poe married his fourteen-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm, and, like Roderick and Madeline Usher, her fragile health was a constant source of fresh anxiety. When she died of tuberculosis in 1847, Poe was hurled into mental and physical prostration. It was a madness from which he only briefly recovered two years later when he became happily engaged to his childhood sweetheart, Elmira Royston Shelton; for soon after his engagement, Poe was found beaten and unconscious in a Baltimore alley and died from unknown cause or causes four days later. Poe, like Roderick Usher, was borne to the floor a corpse: a victim to terrors he had expected and immortalized in his writings, leaving the world with a self-portrait in words both grisly and grim.
There is a notable nightmarish and intangible quality to “The Fall of the House of Usher,” as there is in many of Poe’s gothic masterpieces—a vague sense of foreboding, a floating uneasiness, or shadowy moodiness that is beyond the power of words to express. This abstract aura of Edgar Allan Poe, however strangely, always surrounds objects of a very concrete nature: bricks and mortar, pendulums and pits, cats and rats, spades and coffins, cutthroat apes and crippled dwarves, ravens and red masks, and, in the case of “Usher,” diseased bodies, tarns, trees, and the antique House with vacant, eye-like windows. Poe’s juxtaposition of the tangible and the intangible drives at the distinction between reason and madness, between reality and reverie, between hope and horror. For 175 years “The Fall of the House of Usher” has given readers an impression of a man who sought and fought to demarcate these elements of the universe, even unto his own fall.
May he now, at least and at last, rest in peace.
Republished with gracious permission from Crisis Magazine (September 2014).
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