Sunday, October 3, 2010

Locus Focus - The House of Usher

This is the first in the Locus Focus Scary Settings Challenge for October, as hosted at Shredded Cheddar.

"And travellers now within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows, see
Vast forms that move fantastically
To a discordant melody;
While, like a rapid ghostly river,
Through the pale door,
A hideous throng rush out forever,
And laugh - but smile no more."

That is the last stanza of The Haunted Palace which Roderick Usher composes on his guitar for his friend-from-boyhood, the unnamed narrator of the The Fall of the House of Usher. He has come to visit for some weeks, at Usher's heartfelt request, in the hopes that his presence will alleviate Usher's undetermined hereditary/mental illness (or good old Gothic "melancholy").

The ballad leads to a discussion between the two, well into the narrator's sojourn at the house, in which the hypochondriac and hypersensitive Usher begins to tell his friend of his belief that the house and property (in which they are residing) has individual sentience:
"The belief, however, was connected (as I have previously hinted) with the grey stones of the home of his forefathers. The conditions of the sentience had been here, he imagined, fulfilled in the method of collocation of these stones -- in the order of their arrangement, as well as in that of the many fungi which overspread them, and of the decayed trees which stood around -- above all, in the long undisturbed endurance of this arrangement, and in its reduplication in the still waters of the tarn. Its evidence -- the evidence of the sentience -- was to be seen, he said, (and I here started as he spoke) in the gradual yet certain condensation of an atmosphere of their own about the waters and the walls."
At least decaying things, though desolate, are recognizably relieved by that "half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment" as the narrator relates at the beginning of the The Fall of the House of Usher. But the "undisturbed endurance" that keeps the process of decay in arrest, is part of what unnerves the narrator when he approaches the mansion enough for an inspection narrower than when he first approached the property itself:

"Its principal feature seemed to be that of an excessive antiquity. The discoloration of ages had been great. Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in fine tangled web-work from the eaves. Yet all this was apart from any extraordinary dilapidation. No portion of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones. In this there was much that reminded me of the specious totality of old woodwork which has rotted for long years in some neglected vault, with no disturbance from the breath of the external air. Beyond this indication of extensive decay, however, the fabric gave little token of instability."
And immediately after that sentence, a quite different, yet more disconcerting detail is added:

"Perhaps the eye of a scrutinizing observer might have discovered 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."
If anyone could make a single fissure in a wall terrifying, and do so by making it "barely perceptible", it is Edgar Allen Poe. It would also be he who could make a tarn - a source of reflection of light, and thus of relief - into something else as the narrator first approaches the property:

"It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down -- but with a shudder even more thrilling than before -- upon the remodelled and inverted images of the grey sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows."
After the tarn merely deepens his first impressions of the place rather than dissipating them (how terrible is that?!) he tries to shake off what must be a dream about the place, to believe he's just imagining "that about the whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves and their immediate vicinity -- an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which reeked up from the decayed trees, and the grey wall, and the silent tarn -- a pestilent and mystic vapour, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued."

If the dream doesn't go away, it is positively made real during a great storm one night, when everything outside is made luminous, though the sky is thick with clouds and no lightning strikes; and then terror strikes, both from within and without an antique volume that the narrator reads to soothe his mad friend, called, the Mad Trist of Sir Launcelot Canning. Ethelred, the hero of Trist, "...feeling the rain upon his shoulders, and fearing the rising tempest, uplifted his mace outright, and, with blows, made quickly room in the plankings for his gauntleted hand..."

And that fissure in the wall, though the reader isn't thinking about it, is still there. But the "gauntleted hand" is not coming from outside, but from within the house.


Belfry Bat said...

I'm already feeling unsettled... although from what we now know of fungi, it's already a bad plan to live in a house covered by them, more than enough to ruin anyone's health.

Sullivan McPig said...

Another book I heard lots about, but never read. I should give it a try but there's so many other books I want to read.

Enbrethiliel said...


Stilwell, I didn't comment on this last week because I wanted to read Poe's story first. (It certainly took me long enough, didn't it?)

I really like the reading that says that the outside of the house symbolises Usher's body, while the inside symbolises his mind. I don't think I understood the term "hypochondriac" until I read this story!

@Sully: The Fall of the House of Usher is a short story, so it shouldn't take long to read. On the other hand, the prose is freaking dense--and kind of baroque, really. It took me yonks to plow through it. But I guess that ornate, relentless denseness is what people look for when they read something by Poe.

Paul Stilwell said...

I appreciate that you would take the time to read the story before commenting.

I had to give a knowing chuckle at "ornate, relentless denseness". It was years ago that I last read Poe, and only took up this story for Locus Focus. I remember Poe not being that difficult, or rather, it was indeed dense, but back then I seemed to take it well enough. But reading Poe just lately, wow. I kept saying to myself in frustration: "Why did he write this paragraph like this? Arghh!"

But there lies his knack for horror. It lies in the incongruity between the "baroque" prose and the sudden subject matter. The part where the narrator of The Fall of the House of Usher remarks almost in passing, or as an addendum, that the burial chamber of Usher's sister was immediately beneath his sleeping quarters - there's this sense of things spiraling out of hand, and that they have been spiraling out of hand for some time now, like the narrator wasn't aware of it, but the reader becomes aware.

Enbrethiliel said...


Frustrating is definitely the word I was looking for! It's a very simple, straightforward story about a crazy dude who buries his sister alive and has her come after him in revenge. But Poe took the longest possible route from Point A to Point B. But it's his own brand of charm, and I think that if I read more of his stories in this style, I'd see that the frustration is an essential part of the reading experience.