Very few have done more for Gothic literature than Edgar Allan Poe. His writings about spooky happenings, death, and decay, fit right in with the Victorian mindset, which was all too familiar with death. He is so iconic that other Goth and horror writers can only follow in his wake (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and the Brontë sisters are probably the only ones who come close). Poe was able to shock while holding interest, unlike other writers who see horror as merely a gross-out fest, and he was able to elicit sympathy without it looking tacked-on. I think his 1839 story, The Fall of the House of Usher is my favorite.
The story is told through the eyes of a nameless narrator who goes to see his childhood friend, Roderick Usher, after getting a letter saying that he was gravely ill. After a macabre ride through barren countryside, Narrator Guy comes upon the Usher house, where everything feels and looks like a funeral. The narrator is shocked by Roderick’s appearance. In fact, it’s as if he’s seeing a living corpse:
It was with difficulty that I could bring myself to admit the identity of the wan being before me with the companion of my early boyhood. Yet the character of his face had been at all times remarkable. A cadaverousness of complexion; an eye large, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison; lips somewhat thin and very pallid, but of a surpassingly beautiful curve…And now in the mere exaggeration of the prevailing character of these features, and of the expression they were wont to convey, lay so much of change that I doubted to whom I spoke. The now ghastly pallor of the skin, and the now miraculous lustre of the eye, above all things startled and even awed me. The silken hair, too, had been suffered to grow all unheeded, and as, in its wild gossamer texture, it floated rather than fell about the face, I could not, even with effort, connect its Arabesque expression with any idea of simple humanity.
The narrator all but finds himself trapped at the Usher house. Roderick has hyperethsesia, which means his senses are ultra-super acute. For instance, he can’t have loud noises around, he can only eat the blandest of food, and he can only wear certain fabrics. He and Roderick pass the days reading and walking–Sir Launcelot stories are a favorite– but the deathly atmosphere only heightens as time goes on, and the narrator finds himself getting caught up in it. The narrator helps Roderick bury his sister, Madeline, when the latter seems to die–he wants to have a two-week wake. That right there is strange enough, but then the narrator is shocked beyond belief to find out that she has catalepsy, which means she sometimes goes into states of looking dead. She may be laid out for burial, but she won’t stay that way.
The idea of being buried alive was a very real fear for Victorians, as they had no methods by which to measure heart or brain activity. Oftentimes, it was very difficult to distinguish a coma from death. Some people were so terrified of premature burial that they would order a bell to be placed above their graves with a string running down into the coffin, so that in the event of their revival they could pull the string and alert whoever was walking by. Others didn’t want things to get to that point. Hans Christian Anderson used to leave a note by his bed reading, “I only seem dead.” For Poe to expound on Madeline’s catalepsy, especially her early burial, would have touched an uncomfortable nerve for Victorian readers.
Roderick tells the narrator that the Usher family is cursed because of their evildoing, but doesn’t give any specifics. This is news to the narrator, who always thought that Roderick was unusually aloof, and had chalked it up to his being from an ancient clan, not to mention his having hypochondria. In the end, the narrator watches helplessly as he sees the house and the two remaining family members meet their final destruction.
Usher has been adapted for the screen eight times, but the only one I’ve seen was released in 1960, with Vincent Price as Roderick Usher. Produced by American International Pictures, the film expands on the story while maintaining its atmosphere of festering, decaying doom. Instead of an anonymous narrator visiting his boyhood friend, the film has Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) going after Madeline (Myrna Fahey), his fiancee, who mysteriously fled for home from Boston.
Madeline brightens up slightly when she sees that Philip has come for her, but the house and all its history hang over everything like a shroud. Philip tries to shrug it off at first, taking care of Madeline and making sure she eats, and he’s determined to hang in there, even though the house is shaking like an earthquake and a chandelier just about falls on him. Philip brushes off Roderick’s pleas for him to leave, and gives Roderick suggestions on how to improve the house for Madeline’s safety.
Philip thinks Madeline can shake off her family’s curse if she leaves with him, but before they can, she has an attack of catalepsy. A heartbroken Phillip thinks she’s dead and stays for her funeral. He’s just about to go home when Bristol lets the real story slip, and Phillip just about goes insane trying to find Madeline and blaming Roderick for burying her alive. He falls into a tortured sleep, where he dreams that he’s surrounded by ghostly Ushers and a bloody Madeline.
Other than naming the narrator and giving him a new reason to visit the Usher house, the movie doesn’t deviate all that much from the original story. Roderick does specify what makes the Ushers such an evil family–they’ve got drug addicts, prostitutes, murderers, swindlers and human traffickers. Basically, they’re the worst of the worst. While Roderick and Madeline haven’t engaged in any of these behaviors, they are dealing with the fallout. Roderick doesn’t want Madeline to marry Phillip because he wants the Usher curse to die with them.
The thread of Phillip and Madeline wrings a tiny bit of hope from all the doom and gloom–maybe one of the Ushers isn’t cursed after all and happiness is still in reach for them. It serves to both lighten the grayness ever so slightly and to make the eventual outcome a bit more heartbreaking. There’s also an urgency to the film that the story doesn’t have–in Poe’s original, Roderick never begs the narrator to leave, and the approaching storm is much more subtle.
Vincent Price is an excellent Roderick Usher. He’s got the pallid, death-warmed-over look down, and he’s long and reedy just as Poe described. The only difference is that his hair is considerably less floaty. The movie isn’t unbearably scary, and was clearly done on a low budget basis, but they made good use of what they had. While it doesn’t measure up to Poe’s story in terms of atmosphere and building tension, it ticks off the horror genre boxes nicely.
All right, hope you enjoyed reading, and be sure to check back on Friday because this is happening:
See you in a couple of days!