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Literature / The Fall of the House of Usher

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"And the deep and dank tarn closed silently over the fragments of the House of Usher."

"The Fall of the House of Usher" is one of the most famous stories written by the father of Gothic Horror (in America, at least), Edgar Allan Poe. It was originally published in September 1839.

An unnamed narrator arrives at the creepy, dark, decaying old castle occupied by twins Roderick and Madeline Usher, after receiving a letter from Roderick asking for his help. He finds that the Ushers are not well. Roderick is feverish and has extreme anxiety, and is also a victim of hyperesthesia (overly acute senses). His sister Madeline is also chronically ill, and subject to attacks of catalepsy. Eventually Madeline dies, and Roderick and the narrator bury her in the family crypt, but an oppressive fear still hangs over the Usher castle...

"The Fall of the House of Usher" is one of Poe's best remembered stories. It has been adapted many times for film, including a 1928 American silent short film, a 1928 French feature film, and a famous 1960 production directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price. In his latest collaboration with Netflix, Mike Flanagan will write an eight-episode limited series and direct half the series, with the other half being directed by his regular cinematographer, Michael Fimognari. Bethany Griffin based her 2014 book The Fall off of this short story.


I tell you that she now stands without the tropes!!

  • And I Must Scream: Madeline's catalepsy causes Roderick to think she's dead and bury her alive. She spends an indeterminate amount of time clawing her way out when the catalepsy wears off.
  • Astonishingly Appropriate Interruption: While the narrator is reading the "Mad Trist" story, he and Roderick hear strange sounds that happen to match the narrative — a loud metallic clang when a shield falls off the wall, for example.
  • Bad Moon Rising: As the narrator flees the house, he sees the "full, setting, and blood-red moon" shining through the crack in the structure just before it collapses entirely.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The narrator sees the two remaining Ushers die and the mansion suddenly fall to pieces, leaving nothing of the House of Usher (in any sense of the term) behind. He barely escapes himself. However, the conclusion can be interpreted as being somewhat positive, as at least Roderick and Madeline are at peace and no longer need to worry about their respective conditions any further.
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  • Blessed with Suck: Roderick has very acute senses... which are a massive inconvenience for him.
  • Blood-Splattered Wedding Dress: It isn't a wedding dress, but rather funeral robes; still, Madeline's dress is stained with blood from the exertion of climbing out of her coffin.
  • Brother–Sister Incest/Incest Subtext/Twincest: Roderick's unnatural fixation on his sister and the unusual closeness between them strongly hint at this, and The Other Wiki notes that many literary scholars have interpreted this to be the author's intent. Some adaptations, like the 2006 Gruselkabinett radio drama, outright state that this is the case.
    • Even if Roderick and Madeline don't have this kind of relationship themselves, brother-sister incest is more or less explicitly stated to be a tradition in their family:
    I had learned, too, the very remarkable fact that the stem of the Usher race, all time-honored as it was, had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch; in other words, that the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and had always, with very trifling and very temporary variation, so lain.
  • Buried Alive: Roderick really should have been more careful with Madeline, no?
  • Chekhov's Gun: Roderick's hyperacute senses. He reveals at the end that he's been hearing Madeline scratch away at her coffin for some time. And see below under Foreshadowing.
  • Composite Character: The footman and valet are composed into one character, Briggs, in the German radio drama.
  • Disease Bleach: Roderick's hair has grown white due to his prolonged illness.
  • Double-Meaning Title: The story is about the downfall of the House of Usher (that is, the aristocratic Usher family), and about the literal fall of their ancestral mansion, which collapses and sinks into the lake.
  • Empathic Environment: A storm strikes on the night that Madeline climbs out of her coffin.
  • Faux Death: Madeline goes into a death-like trance and is buried. The narrator even observes how remarkably lifelike her 'corpse' is.
  • Foreshadowing: As he approaches the house, the narrator notices a hairline crack extending from top to bottom.
    • The narrator finds Madeline's corpse disturbingly rosy and healthy-looking as he assists at her burial. She turns out to be still alive.
  • Genius Loci: Roderick believes that his house is alive, that the moss and masonry have combined to create a living organism. The ending suggests that he's right.
  • Gothic Horror: "I had so worked upon my imagination as really to believe 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 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."
  • Gratuitous French: Opens with an epigraph in French that translates as "his heart is a suspended lute, as soon as it is touched, it resounds".
  • Hates Being Touched: Roderick, due to his Super Senses, to the point that he can only tolerate extremely soft fabrics in his clothes.
  • Hereditary Twinhood: Madeline and Roderick are Half-Identical Twins. One interpretation is that this sets up the twist that the Ushers are "all one line"; they were all born from Brother–Sister Incest between twins and the "taint" upon their house is as a result of this.
  • Impoverished Patrician: The Ushers are broke.
  • It Runs in the Family: It's strongly implied that some inherent defect in the Usher blood, probably also causing the failure of other branches of the family tree to endure, is what has brought them to this.
  • It's Going Down: The collapse of the Usher mansion, which ends the story.
  • Let the Past Burn: Ends this way as the mansion collapses, and the curse of the Usher family is brought to closure through the destruction of the house.
  • Load-Bearing Boss: Once the last of the Usher bloodline is dead, their mansion falls apart.
  • Looks Like Cesare: Roderick is described as having deep-set eyes and a generally gaunt appearance.
  • Meaningful Name: To "usher in" something means to welcome something new (like a new era) and move it forward. The Ushers are an old family of Impoverished Patricians, with Roderick and Madeline representing the last vestiges of a dying aristocracy. When their ancestral mansion collapses, it's symbolic of the End of an Age and the beginning of a new one.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Roderick's reaction when he realizes he's buried Madeline alive.
  • No Name Given: For the narrator. Adaptations tend to name him Philip.
  • No Ontological Inertia: The Usher house (the building) falls apart once the Usher house (the family) is gone.
  • Plain Palate: Roderick Usher has a condition called "generalised hyperesthesia", with one symptom being a palate that's so sensitive he can only tolerate bland food.
  • Psychological Torment Zone: The house of the Ushers.
  • Sanity Slippage: The whole tale revolves around Roderick's.
  • Satellite Character: The narrator has no real personality other than being an innocent, sensitive Nice Guy, and serves only as a foil for Roderick.
  • Stylistic Suck: Story-within-a-story "The Mad Trist" is hopelessly trite and stilted. Notably, it's actually acknowledged as terrible in-universe, and the narrator thinks to himself that he's only reading it because it was literally the first book he touched.
  • Super Senses: Roderick suffers from hyperacute senses, which are portrayed as always a burden, never an advantage.
  • Trash the Set: The story ends with the Usher castle falling apart by itself and the remains sinking into the lake as the narrator runs to save himself.
  • Uncanny Atmosphere: The Usher castle is established from the beginning as standing on a creepy, unsettling, fogbound moor. The narrator is nervous as soon as he arrives.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The footman and valet that greet the narrator are afterward forgotten.