The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe

UsherThe Fall of the House of Usher is one of the books from my classic club list and is also probably one of those books where most people are already more than familiar with the story.

The book is only a short story, probably about 50 pages and originally published in 1839 is considered to be one of Poe’s most famous works and a perfect example of his ability to make every sentence and reference meaningful.

The premise of the story is the failing line of the House of Usher.  The whys and wherefores of this are never discussed but clearly the family seems to be doomed or cursed – or at least they believe themselves to be so!

At the start of the story the narrator is asked to visit his friend Roderick who believes himself to be terminally ill.  Even though the two are best friends they haven’t seen each other for many years and so it comes as a surprise to the narrator to find Roderick in such a poor condition!  It comes as an even greater surprise to find that he has a twin sister who herself seems to be suffering from a severe condition and in fact dies within days of the narrator’s arrival and is placed in a tomb in the cellars of the Usher Mansion.

I won’t go any further in terms of the plot as this is only a short story.

For me this was a reread, and on top of that I have also seen the Vincent Price movie and read a re-imagining of the story called The Fall by Bethany Griffin.  I think having read this in what I like to consider my ‘romantic’ years – in that I now romanticise all of those books and love them unconditionally – it was good to go back and check this out to see how I feel about it now.

I would probably say that whilst I don’t find this as creepy as I did on my first read, and I also don’t imagine many horror readers in this age will find it scary, it still has a fantastically gothic feel.  The tone of the writing, which no doubt appears flowery and excessive compared to modern books, is actually a style that I love to revisit.  I can read a book like this with almost a voice over running inside my head as though I’m being told the tale (like one of those old movies that starts off with a voice over – there’s just something so story time about it!).  It’s just so wonderfully old fashioned and ornate and yet at the same time, being a short novel, incredibly meaningful in what it manages to pack into such a limited space.

A macabre tale, peopled with fragile minds, heightened psychosis and fuelled by massive hypochondria set in a bleak environment in a dark and dilapidated mansion that adds fuel to an already overburdened mind.  Were the Ushers under a curse, is the house sentient or is the mind a powerful instrument that can indeed lead to self fulfilling prophecies of doom.

This is, as I said, only a short story.  The words need to be savoured and it is in no way a slasher type of story.  The horror in this story comes from the mind and the tortures it can create – or does it?

What this has definitely succeeded in doing is making me want to revisit some more of Poe’s work which I will definitely do in the future as I’d like to compare the feelings I now have for the stories.





The Fall by Bethany Griffin

The Fall by Bethany Griffin is based on the classic The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe.  I really enjoyed this, it’s well written and told in a way that builds the tension slowly and very satisfyingly.  I guess you could call it a slow burner really and I think for me personally the pleasure that I derived from the book was also added to by the fact that I’ve read the original (albeit many years ago) and also had a fixation on watching Hammer Horror and other such films and so have also seen a film version of this starring Vincent Price.

Anyway, to the story.  The original story was narrated through a third party, a friend of Roderick’s.  The Usher family are supposedly cursed stemming back over the centuries.  The very house they live in feels sinister and they all seem to die young. What I really liked about this reimagining is that Madeline is the narrator.  Madeline and Roderick are twins and the last in the current line of Ushers.  Their parents died whilst they were relatively young – sucumbing to the curse themselves – and the house, which is sentient, seems to have chosen Madeline as it’s latest favourite (not really a good thing as it involves inheriting the curse and dying young).  The fact that Madeline is now telling the story lends her a little bit more likability which I don’t recall from either the original book or the film version.

The main characters are Madeline and Roderick.  Roderick is sent away to school at a fairly young age by his mother who is desperate to save him from the ‘curse’ – you’ll note that Madeline isn’t sent away, she may be the house’s favourite but she certainly isn’t her mothers.  Roderick is the favourite of their mother and indeed sending him away from the house does seem to lessen his own illness.  At first of course he feels compelled to return – the ‘twin’ link being strong, but eventually he returns less and less leaving Madeline to the machinations of the house – and the doctors who are supposedly looking after her well being.

The other character is the house of course.  It seems able to instill feelings into the people who merely touch it.  It takes them over, controls their actions, bends them to it’s desire.  And, what it most desires is the continuation of the Usher line (even if that seems to have undesirably incestuous implications!)

Now, what you have to remember here is that the original book trod a very fine line between sinister curse, creepy house and mental illness.  Having a curse hanging over the Usher’s in fact means that they put every downfall to that very thing.  Not to mention, mind over matter.  Even the house lends itself to a certain induced madness.  With this retelling Madeline gives a much more convincing job of how the house feels to her, which is not, of course, to say that this isn’t in her mind!  Manifesting itself in all sorts of unpleasant forms whenever it appears to be displeased by the actions of the inhabitants.  Again, though is the house sentient, is Madeline cursed or is she slightly unhinged living in an uncared for house that is simply crumbling into the foundations and going a little crazy due to inertia, boredom, loneliness, misery?

Upon completing this story – no, I wouldn’t say this is creepy, in terms of get yourself behind a cushion and be afraid to read on.  I would more say that this is a story that slowly reveals itself and then takes a hold of you.  It’s written very well and the author manages to instill a certain gothic feel – from unexplored, dustry rooms in the house to strange monsters that inhabit the tarn that surrounds it.  The chapters alternate between the different ages of Madeline interspersed with sections that have been found in one of her ancestor’s diaries.  I liked this form of storytelling although at first I hadn’t quite grasped the relevance of some of these chapters and now feel as though I should go back and read it again.  A hint here: the chapters jump backwards and forwards and also include diary excerpts but although these may feel random they are all, in fact, linked and events that you read from Madeline at a younger age are then readdressed or become more meaningful in later sections.  I think I read that Poe was a master of making everything in his stories relevant and Griffin seems to have also mastered this technique.

In terms of criticisms – I didn’t really have any.  You could be forgiven for being put out a bit about a retelling, this being a classic after all – but I personally think this is well done, it strongly reflects the original and as mentioned I enjoyed having Madeline’s side of events.

I enjoyed this very much.  I wouldn’t say it’s an all out creepy read, or more to the point it’s not really ‘horror’ so if you’re expecting or wanting all out horror then this may not be for you.  It definitely achieves a gothic and slightly aged feel and certainly portrays a story of the life of a rather sad, lonely and insular young female whose life is monopolised by the strange curse that surrounds her family.

On reflection I wish I’d read the Poe book first so that I could more accurately compare the two but I suppose hindsight is a thing of beauty!!

I received a copy of The Fall from Orion Publishing – for which my thanks.  The above is my own opinion.