I've spent literally about three hours producing this review out of necessity and in my quest for heinous objectivity and all that crap, it's tarred with bookish results. But I haven't contributed anything in a while and am in need of blogging. Maybe we can all look back on this moment and giggle.
People think they know Edgar Allan Poe because he married his thirteen year-old cousin. Granted, its ethical implications are more than a little questionable and as such could be considered grounds for an appropriate affixation for Poe’s foaming, vitriolic ramblings on love, hate, insanity and ostensibly everything in-between. Such a criticism, though, profoundly over-simplifies and understates a personality at once disconnected and yet palpably ferocious.
This duplicity is no more prevalent than in The Fall of the House of the Usher, one of many short stories by Poe, which does away with the usual barmy protagonist as narrator and instead supplants this upon Roderick Usher: the one-time friend of our nameless guide, not only plagued by his unearthly place of residence and ill-fated twin sister but also an oppressive mental disorder which may or may not have something to do with the previous two. By eschewing the first person in this manner and up-playing the non-didacticism, Poe simultaneously adorns and degrades the soul. For itself is an emotional terror, not one of factual integrity. And so, as you’d expect, initial descriptions of the house sniffle of perpetual indulgence (“a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit”), but Poe merely uses these fantasist extortions to legitimise his realist intentions. Thusly Usher has little to do with a wildly transmogrifying abode, and everything to do with the wearing of individualism – an admittedly sensationalist conclusion is poignantly two-fold; as the Usher house falls so, too, do the lives and lineage of the ashen siblings.
One can accuse The Fall of the House of Usher, and by extension most of Poe’s repertoire, of being comfortably digestible in its own horrific way. Its finale is a fitting one, it flirts with both the supernatural and spiritual, and the plot serves to typify insanity just enough to entertain. Poe is restrained and let loose at the same time, both pure and puerile, frothing at the mouth like a witless animal circling the epicentre of innate ‘Baroque-ness’. And yet this is not a desperate lunge like the slovenly poet who overflows his passion in For Annie, neither the murderous semantics of The Tell-Tale Heart. Instead Usher teeters somewhere in the middle: suitably aware of its own grunge and stream of consciousness but less audaciously. Then it is not with grim fascination we enter the House of Usher as the host’s ‘friend’, rather with a snooping curiosity. We are drawn to its grotesqueness not because we ourselves are grotesque – that honour is bestowed upon, ironically, a house more animated than its inhabitants- but because we ask why. Why is it the house compares to “no earthly sensation” other than “the bitter lapse into everyday life” one receives after an opium trip? Our narrator even feigns a shaky justification, and in this vein taps into some odd wealth of primal human emotion. Poe makes us afraid, and out of nothing other than opinion and manipulative observation.
The fact that Poe is able to mask these machinations so completely is nothing short of intimidating. So whilst there’s a veritable gamut of now familiar horror staples (internment while alive, doors slamming, the original haunted house) it’s a tribute to the author that his story of the corrupted individual transcends any potentially dating genre trappings. The most obvious manifestation of this would be the invention of The Mad Trist, supposedly by Sir Launcelot Canning in fact Poe himself, which serves as unlikely means to extrapolate the reader’s fear further as the sounds contained within the story-within-a-story begin to mimic those in reality. Appropriately, though, Poe drenches the story of the knightly drunkard deep in satire and the plot is intentionally nonsensical. This gimmick in other hands would be nothing other than a scant excuse to showcase the author’s talents. In Poe’s case, it rings of a knowing selflessness many strive for but few achieve.
Subtlety is not something one usually associates with Poe, and The Fall of the House of Usher is no exception. Indeed, he all but stops short of bludgeoning us over the head with the novella’s wanton spirituality and vagaries of quietude. But there, in that moment, in that house, when Roderick Usher gives up his soul to bellow “MADMAN!” at his alarmed guest, there is an instant of such utterly sublime terror that strikes such a chord of unspeakable feeling that it warrants the excess that has preceded it. Expectedly compulsive and emotionally shattering, yet just as deliciously disordered as its titular dwelling, Usher is a decisive work with a slobbering intensity. Just what you’d expect, then, from an American who married his thirteen year-old cousin.
“By utter simplicity, by the nakedness of his designs, he arrested and overawed attention. If ever mortal painted an idea, that mortal was Roderick Usher.”
For Edgar Allan Poe, that idea is fear.