I’ve always enjoyed the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and last night I dipped into my mystery/horror/gothic month with one of my favorites, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” For whatever reason, I had not re-read it in a very long time, but it gave, as I remembered, the perfect sense of the atmosphere I am looking for.
Poe’s foreshadowing is perfect from the very first paragraph. When the narrator approaches the house, his sense of gloom begins.
I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.
In other words: this is not going to be a Romantic, even-the-awful-is-awesome story. It is only desolate and terrible, and not poetic, despite the artistic bent of the ancient House of Usher. And from the very first description of the house, it is personified with “vacant eye-like windows.”
The narrator doesn’t let us down. He tries his best to remain rational in the face of this desolation and the mysterious illness afflicting his host. “Superstition—for why should I not so term it?” “What must have been a dream.” “Exciting and highly distempered ideality…over all.” And of course, during the final storm scene, he explains scientifically to his fragile charge: “These appearances, which bewilder you, are merely electrical phenomena not uncommon—or it may be that they have their ghastly origin in the rank miasma of the tarn.” And then he offers to read—wait for it—a romance!
After this reading, I am left with a question I had never considered before. It’s explained that the House of Usher has only ever had one direct line of descendants, never branching off. But when Roderick speaks of his sister, also mysteriously ill:
“Her decease,” he said, with a bitterness which I can never forget, “would leave him (him, the hopeless and the frail) the last of the ancient race of the Ushers.”
In a family with only a direct line, no branches, “there can be only one,” as it were. In no case would an Usher and his sibling have both gone on to continue the line—or is there something I’m misunderstanding about these direct lines that would exclude any relatives coming from female Ushers?