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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 a creepy, dark, decaying old castle to visit his friend Roderick, one of the last two descendants of the house of Usher. He finds that the Ushers are not well: Roderick is feverish and has extreme anxiety, and is also experiencing hyperesthesia (overly acute senses). His twin sister Madeline is also chronically ill and subject to attacks of catalepsy. While he is still visiting, Madeline dies, and he and Roderick put her body in the family crypt. Still, a creeping dread continues to hang over Roderick Usher...

"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.

Raul Garcia created and directed an anthology of five stories, including "The Fall of the House of Usher" narrated by Christopher Lee, called Extraordinary Tales.

In collaboration with Netflix, Mike Flanagan wrote an eight-episode limited series and directed half the series, with the other half directed by his regular cinematographer, Michael Fimognari.

Bethany Griffin based her 2014 book The Fall on 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 she comes back to her senses.
    • Roderick himself, whose hyperacute senses tell him that Madeline is alive in her coffin, is unable to say anything, or go release her, or do more than suffer under the knowledge that she is going to get out eventually.
  • Astonishingly Appropriate Interruption: While the narrator is reading "The Mad Trist" to Roderick, they both hear strange sounds that happen to match the story — 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 light of 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 last two Ushers die and their mansion suddenly collapse into the lake, leaving nothing of the House of Usher (in any sense of the term) behind. He barely escapes himself. However, the 'taint' on the house is gone with its passing, and Roderick and Madeline are finally at peace.
  • 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 white clothes are 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.
    • Brother-sister incest is more or less explicitly stated to also 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 attempts to prevent this by placing Madeline's body in the family vault for two weeks before her final burial, but with the coffin lid screwed down and the door sealed, the effect is the same.
  • 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: The narrator describes the stricken Roderick's hair as "gossamer", which can mean both 'ultrafine' and 'light colored.' The 'texture' definition is supported elsewhere in the text, but there's room to assume that Roderick's hair has gone white as well as thin.
  • Do Not Go Gentle: Madeline spends her final hours struggling out of her coffin and making her way to her brother. She dies embracing him, and he dies of fear in her arms.
  • 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".
  • Grave Robbing: Roderick insists on securing his sister's body in the mansion for a couple weeks instead of burying her immediately, at least in part to save her corpse from this.
    The brother had been led to his resolution (so he told me) by consideration of the unusual character of the malady of the deceased, of certain obtrusive and eager inquiries on the part of her medical men, and of the remote and exposed situation of the burial-ground of the family.
  • 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 have a large house, but the place has fallen into severe disrepair.
  • 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: The narrator sees the Usher manor break in two and fall into the shallow lake that surrounds it, as if its own life were tied to the stricken Usher family.
  • Load-Bearing Boss: Once the last of the Usher bloodline is dead, their mansion falls apart.
  • Long-Haired Pretty Boy: A dark example. The narrator makes it clear that Roderick is very pretty, describing such details as "lips [...] of a surpassingly beautiful curve", "delicate" features and "large, liquid and luminous" eyes... or at least he would be very pretty, if he wasn't also sickly, frail, and rather unnerving. His hair is long and even described as soft and "silken", but also seems to be rather unkempt.
  • Looks Like Cesare: Roderick is described as having deep-set eyes and a generally gaunt appearance. He is very pale, though his hair colour is not specified (some interpret the gossamer comparisons to mean it's white, while others assume that only refers to its texture and have illustrated him as an Eerie Pale-Skinned Brunette).
  • 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 symbolizes the End of an Age (and hopefully 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.
  • Only Friend: Roderick has summoned the narrator to the house for company even though they last saw each other as boys; the narrator is probably the only person he has to call upon.
  • 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 Usher mansion and its grounds are sunless, dank, and gloomy. The narrator thinks that even the house has gone a bit crazy under the circumstances.
  • Sanity Slippage: Roderick's mind slowly degenerates and finally collapses under his awareness that something horrible is about to happen to him.
  • Satellite Character: The narrator has no real personality other than being an innocent, sensitive Nice Guy, and serves only as a foil for Roderick.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: The narrator flees when Madeline and Roderick die in front of him. It saves his life, since he has barely escaped the house before it collapses for good.
  • Sensory Abuse: Pretty much all of life, to Roderick. Bright lights, loud sounds, and heavy textures are intolerable to him, and he hasn't left the Usher mansion in years.
  • 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.
  • Together in Death: The last two Ushers die at the same time, and their mansion falls apart moments later.
  • Trash the Set: The story ends with the Usher castle breaking apart 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. We also never hear what became of the narrator's horse.
  • Wild Hair: Roderick's hair is said to be so thin and fine in texture that it floats around his head.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: Roderick Usher seems aware that he is going to die, and the anxiety wears on him until it is all he can think about.