I re-read Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher and tried to like it better than I did the first read through and only marginally succeeded. My Bookman read it too. He liked it better than I did but he said he thinks Poe needed to make it longer and develop the story more. I am inclined to agree.
I can’t put my finger on it, but I feel like something is missing. Poe tries really hard with the narrator arriving at the mansion and describing the bleak wall, the “vacant eye-like windows,” decayed trees, a landscape which inspires “utter depression of the soul.” We have the narrator, unnamed, filled with trepidation, but willing to proceed to the house anyway because his boyhood friend whom he hasn’t seen in a very long time, wrote him a desperate letter begging him to come.
Roderick Usher lives in the house–which Poe tries hard to make creepy but just doesn’t quite pull off in my opinion, not like Shirley Jackson did in Haunting of Hill House–with his twin sister and a few servants. Usher has asked the narrator to come and keep him company in hopes that the mental agitation he is suffering will be calmed. Poe implies that house and the people who have lived in the house have worked upon each other over the generations. Usher even insists that the house is alive.
But there is nothing evil about the house, only the degenerate who lives there. Because, you see, it is hinted that the family is severely inbred which would account, in part for Roderick’s mental illness. Usher’s sister is also ill and soon to die according to the brother.
Spoilers Ahead! She does die and the brother insists on putting her in a room in the deeps of the mansion, “for now.” Eight days go by and there is a storm outside. The narrator is unaccountably restless, he thinks he is hearing things. Usher comes to his room in a panic and the narrator tries to calm him by reading him a romance. But as the valiant hero in the story progresses, killing dragons and banging down doors, the two men hear echos of splintering wood and wails and screams from inside the house. And before you know it, Usher’s sister comes crashing into the room. This time she really does die but not before the shock of seeing her kills Usher. The narrator can’t stand it and flees the house which falls in behind him.
The thing is, Usher knew all along she wasn’t dead. But I think he “killed” her because he was having an incestuous relationship with her and could no longer bear it. I found the relationship so vague that instead of working like the vagueness in Jekyll and Hyde does to stimulate the reader’s imagination, it works against it by not providing compelling enough evidence for Usher’s mental breakdown.
Poe provides a nice and tidy structure to the story with the progression of events in the first half reflected in those of the second half. He also provides several episodes of foreshadowing. He works on atmosphere too. But I didn’t find any of it building, at least for me, any sort of tension. So at the end when I am supposed to be filled with horror I am underwhelmed because even though I had never read the story before, I knew exactly what was going to happen because I was paying attention. Even that theoretically shouldn’t have been a problem. I know what is going to happen in The Cask of Amontillado and Masque of the Red Death, and Tell Tale Heart, but I love those stories. As I said at the beginning, there is something missing from Fall of the House of Usher. Those other stories have it, whatever it is. I guess even Poe can’t be brilliant all the time.
This was my final RIP Challenge read. I thought it was a novella but it was only a short story. I plan on reading Doris Lessing’s Fifth Child during Saturday’s read-a-thon and I am reading Lord of the Flies too, so those will make up for the shortness of the Poe selection.