Review: The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe

The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Fall of the House of Usher is a short horror story, written by Edgar Allan Poe. It was published in the September of 1839 and follows the slightly terrifying story of an unnamed narrator who goes to visit his childhood friend at the House of Usher in his friend’s time of need. It’s easy to get through; I managed to finish it in the space of a mere hour and a half and it’s an interesting read. I’m not sure whether it’s classed as a Gothic text or not, but I definitely noticed striking glimmers of the Gothic genre in Edgar Allan Poe’s writing.

The setting is a clear example of this. The story opens on a “dull, dark and soundless” day with clouds that “hung oppressively low in the heavens.” There are “vacant eye-like windows” and decayed trees with an “utter depression of soul.” The use of the physical attributes of the house (the trees, the windows etc.) fused with the physical and emotional human attributes such as the eye like windows and the depression of soul, come together to paint a tangible atmosphere of melancholy. Everything is magnified through the narrator’s description and it heightens his “insufferable gloom.”

The House of Usher – as found via Google Images with the search “The Fall of the House of Usher”

After much description of the house from the outside, which is basically just a sorrow inducing and decrepit house, the narrator goes on to explain how he actually came upon the House of Usher. It seems that an old friend of his from school, Roderick Usher, sent him a letter urging him to come and visit. The two hadn’t seen or contacted each other in years, but in the letter, Roderick speaks of an acute illness (mental and physical from what I deduced) and so expresses an earnest desire to see his old friend, in the hope that his company can cheer him up and perhaps alleviate some of his symptoms.

The narrator is invited inside, where he passes through a Gothic archway before being led through a series of dark and intricate passages. He then finds himself in a room with such high windows that he claims they seem inaccessible to anyone from within. This, in conjunction with the dark and intricate passages of the house itself, screams of entrapment and therefore relates very nicely to the Gothic. When reading, I got the sense that whatever, or whoever rather, is inside the house stays inside the house and does not leave. But also that, whatever is outside the house or whoever happens to pass by it, does not enter it either. Everything seemed isolated and haunted, so the horror within the story is definitely set up well and it remains prominent throughout.

When we finally meet Roderick Usher, the narrator tells us that he looks so different, he can hardly recognise who he’s looking at. The description here is probably my favourite part of the whole story – because I just get excited by things that are really precisely and eloquently described:

“A cadverousness of complexion; an eye large, liquid and luminous beyond comparison; lips somewhat thin and very pallid, but a surpassingly beautiful curve; a nose of delicate Hebrew model, but with a breadth of nostril unusual in similar formations; a finely moulded chin, speaking, in its want of prominence, of a want of moral energy; hair of a more than web-like softness and tenuity…”

I think that the description here really speaks for itself. Roderick is very clearly seriously ill and dying. Edgar Allan Poe obviously waits a while before introducing Roderick to us because it builds up the suspense. Who lives inside the house? What has Roderick’s illness done to him? And we’re hardly disappointed when we meet him because he is everything I expected, if not more. He unnerves the narrator, forcing a “nervous agitation” to come over him before going on to speak of his illness in a voice that drifts intermittently between abrupt and weighty to hollow-sounding.

The illness is apparently one that runs in his family and has forced upon him, all of these restrictions. He must wear only clothes that have a specific texture, his eyes are tormented by light and his nostrils opposed to the scent of flowers. He says himself: “I must perish” and he seems to have this tendency to believe that he has to face a horrible death that will terrify him. But the story becomes particularly interesting when we meet his sister, the cataleptic Lady Madeline, who is also ill. She appears to drift about the house in a ghostly manner, appearing and disappearing whilst in a state of wasting away.

This seems to greatly dishearten Roderick, whose tears are said to trickle down his emaciated fingers as he cries over her illness and the thought of her dying. For several days afterwards, neither of them speak of Lady Madeline, who the narrator feels he will never see again. This is perhaps because he believes she will die or because he suspects that she will have to remain in her bed for an extended period of time, due to her illness. In any case, the two men distract themselves by painting, the narrator reading to his friend and also listening to Roderick sing and play the guitar. We’re then shown one of Roderick’s songs, called “The Haunted Palace.”

“The Haunted Palace” poem, written by Edgar Allan Poe – I got this picture from a review of the short story on Goodreads.

The Haunted Palace poem is my second favourite part of the book. It’s filled with striking imagery, varying voices and it does paint a truly haunting picture; particularly the last line about laughing, but smiling no more, which seems to suggest an unhappy emptiness and quite transparent laughter.

Soon afterwards, the narrator is informed that Lady Madeline has died and at Roderick’s request, he helps to entomb Lady Madeline in what I believe is the family vault or chamber. But several days after this, the narrator finds that he is having sleepless nights and cannot rest. So, quite unnaturally I feel, as it is a dark and stormy night after all, the narrator decides to go for a wander around the house. He then bumps in to Roderick, who comes to his room and starts asking him creepy questions that induce feelings of terror, about whether he has seen it and he says that if he stays, he will see it. The narrator encourages him to stop talking about that and to sit down so that he can read to him.

He decides to read Mad Trist; a story about a knight, Ethelred, who stumbles across a palace of gold when trying to escape from a storm. When Elthelred finds a shield hanging on the wall, he reads the legend (which claims that whoever slays the dragon will get to keep the shield) and slays the dragon. The shield then falls to the floor with a loud, metallic sound. As he reads to Roderick, he hears distinct sounds within the house that strikingly resemble the sounds described in the story.

Roderick then admits that the sounds that the narrator hears, are really the sounds of Lady Madeline in the tomb; as he believes that they have put her in the tomb alive and he has apparently been hearing her for days. Madeline then appears, dressed in white and soaked with blood, before falling on to her brother Roderick and they both die.

The narrator flees the house and when he turns back, the house falls. I think the idea here is that the House of Usher can only exist with the Usher family still living inside it, so when they both die, the house is no longer.

I enjoyed the story. It’s not a favourite of mine, but I liked it and I would recommend it to others. Therefore, I have given it 3 out of 5 stars.

Of course, it was incredibly well written. The voice was strong, assured and most of all believable, so I’m giving this story a five tick rating.

One thing I have to point out, is the way that Edgar Allan Poe seemed to love using overly long sentences in this story. They’re everywhere, literally and they seem to go on and on like snakes continuously slithering across the words of the page. But he knew how to use punctuation incredibly well because they work perfectly and you don’t find yourself having to take excessive breaths whilst you read.

I thought it was a pretty good story, with a simple plot that was really brought to life by the sophisticated and elaborate writing. It’s what I would call, an intellectual read. It’s full of words that I barely understood whilst reading and I had to consult my dictionary for definitions a lot of the time, but I always like that about books. I especially like that when it happens with old books like this one because then I’m able to expand my vocabulary throughout different stretches of time.

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