"There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?"
A gothic house that instantly made me think of the House of Usher.
When our narrator has been summoned to the bedside of his sick friend Roderick Usher, he finds a household overcast with gloom. If an environment can permeate a soul with melancholy and fear, then the House of Usher is a detriment to all who enter. Our narrator begins to feel the effects almost immediately. "I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow. An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all."
Roderick is suffering from numerous illnesses, all undiagnosable in the 1800s. This story predates the modern psychology that eventually is able to put a name to those illnesses: hyperesthesia, hypochondria, and severe anxiety. This trilogy of maladies can start to erode the ability of the mind to reason. His twin sister Madeline is also sick and is frequently discovered sleepwalking or really something more like death walking.
The atmosphere is beginning to wear on our narrator as well. He likes Roderick and enjoys composing songs, writing poetry, and painting pictures with him, but even as they manage to ignore the malaise of their circumstances for a few hours, the melancholy is always lurking to reassert itself on their senses."An atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the gray wall, and the silent tarn—a pestilent and mystic vapor, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued." He begins to feel uneasy all the time and is beginning to believe that Roderick is not afraid of a sickness producing paranormal, but is actually, justifiably afraid of something real, but unknowable.
Our imaginations can always conjure up worse horrors than those we can actually see.
Illustration by Harry Clarke whose work is often mistakenly attributed to Aubrey Beardsley
When Madeline dies, things begin to unravel. Our narrator finds himself helping Roderick to take her down in the family tombs. Madeline appears more alive in death than she did in life. Her cheeks are even rosy. Roderick insists that they screw down the coffin lid.
Let’s just say the story ends with a bang.
I recently started reading the Robert McCammon book Usher’s Passing and realized that it has been a long time since I’d read the Edgar Allan Poe story that was the inspiration for that novel. I’ve always enjoyed the ripe symbolism that is always a characteristic of a good Poe story. The reader experiences this growing uneasiness as the story unspools. Poe seemingly effortlessly conveys this sense of impending doom. When I was breaking sentences down to see how Poe was doing this, I realized that it wasn’t effortless, but masterful.
Another awesome illustration from Harry Clarke
I liked Poe even before I discovered that I shared a birthday (January 19th) with him. He was appreciated in his time more by the French than he was by the Americans. I’ve seen it mentioned several times where American travellers to Europe expressed their bafflement at being asked about this American writer who they had never heard of. On some late night, when you are having trouble sleeping, read a story or two of Poe and notice the psychological impact he starts to have on you as your eyes dart around the room at what sounded like a creaking floorboard or your skin crawls at the screech of an owl that may have been the last scream of a woman ensnared.
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