The Fall of the House of Usher

On my way to work, I observe the houses I pass by. I try to guess the owner’s personality from the outside appearance of the home. It’s a game I play. Most houses don’t give off anything in particular. Some of them though, arouse my curiosity.

One rundown house suggests great sadness. It’s lived in because there are always cars in the driveway. Then there’s a house that’s absolutely impeccable, but cold as ice; it doesn’t exactly invite you to ring the bell.

At one time or another all of us have entered a house that we wanted to leave as fast as our feet could carry us, for all kinds of reasons: the decor, the atmosphere, the owner or maybe something in the very air. Human beings project themselves and are reflected in the decor, the arrangement of furniture, the division of rooms, etc.

The writer Edgar Allan Poe superbly described this phenomenon. True to his eccentric self, he verges on the extreme in his novel The Fall of the House of Usher. A bit morbid perhaps, but oh-so revealing!

Gifted with an acute sense of observation, Poe was a master of description. A man sets off to visit a childhood friend whom he hasn’t seen for many years. The friend invited him by implying that his visit would do him a great deal of good. The friend says that he’s the victim of some mysterious evil in the house. The visitor arrives on horseback before the Usher family manor. The mere sight of the enormous house weighs heavily upon him.

“I looked upon the scene before me, upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain, upon the bleak walls, upon the vacant eye-like windows, upon a few rank sedges,” the narrator recounts.

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A blackish pond lies near the manor.

The visitor states:  “There are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us.” He later adds, “A mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression.”

And a last comment on the exterior: “Its principal feature seemed to be that of an excessive antiquity. The discoloration of ages had been great. Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves. Yet all this was apart from any extraordinary dilapidation. No portion of the masonry had fallen.”

Once inside, the visitor describes the interior: a Gothic archway above the entry, a dark hallway leading to the owner’s room, carvings on the ceiling, sombre tapestries on the walls and the utter blackness of the floors.

And how was the owner’s bedroom? “Dark draperies hid the walls and the furniture was profuse, comfortless, antique, and tattered… irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all.”

The owner is excessively sensitive. He cannot tolerate certain fabrics, even faint light hurts his eyes and many sounds inspire him with horror. The family mansion had a strong influence over his spirit, “an effect which the physique of the gray walls and turrets, and of the dim tarn into which they all looked down, had, at length, brought about upon the morale of his existence.”

The end of the visit is macabre—so much so that the visitor flees. When he looks back, lightning strikes the long crack in the house that extends from the roof to the ground. The walls crumble and the manor is sucked into the pond.

Photo: iStockphoto LP