Macabre takes a whole new meaning in the writing of Edgar Allan Poe, the nineteenth century Bostonian author who pioneered the genres of detective fiction, gothic horror, and even the emerging sphere of science fiction. His own life seems to take on a mask of morbid mystery; much of his writing is said to be inspired by the death of his young wife and his own alcoholism. “The Fall of the House of Usher” serves as a prime example of his mastery of horror; in fact, it is the vagueness of the story – that it is largely left to the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps – which makes it such a masterpiece of the horror genre. From the very start, the reader feels a sense of claustrophobia overcome them, an impending doom that is creeping towards the narrator, an instinct to turn the other way and go back. Yet the very nature of the house, the house of Usher, draws one in regardless of their insecurities and we see the exact thing happen to the narrator of the story.
“Oppressive” is the atmosphere that encompasses the narrator from the very start, a dull, dark, soundless day in a season where all plant-life starts to die. The word “oppressive” recurs many times during the course of the short story, an integral word that helps the reader put themselves in the position of the narrator. The word itself indicates no room for thought, freedom, or happiness; it is dreary, all-encompassing hopelessness. Every nuance of the word is augmented by Poe’s writing and, as the narrator rightly says, we are filled with “a sense of insufferable gloom” just two sentences into the story. There is no romance to the House of Usher, no semblance of melancholic beauty to be foraged and held as a glimmering beacon of optimism. Nothing counteracts the sheer depression instigated by the house, and everything in the landscape is either dead or dying – including the house itself which is decaying; it presents as a grave waiting for its cadaver to arrive. Indeed, there is an intolerable feeling of impending horror descending upon both the reader and the narrator, and as we plunge through the rest of the story, we are able to see it come to life.
Poe likens the depression the narrator is faced with to, “the afterdream of the reveller upon opium – the bitter lapse into everyday life – the hideous dropping off of the veil.” The rest of the world embodies the fantastic, illusory ecstasy brought by excessive use of an opiate; and yet, just approaching the house is like a jolt of terrible reality, taking away the very joy of the addict, and plunging him headfirst into the icy pool of mundanity, of responsibility, a reminder of the inevitability of death that seems so impossible in the high brought by the drug. The same joylessness that devours the unwilling recoverer permeates into our very soul, and we clamor for the chance to feel the lightness of simply existing without a care in the world. It is impossible to imagine what the narrator feels, yet, Poe writes in a way that we cannot help but empathize though in our heart of hearts we ache not to. “There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart,” and yet the author is obliged to move onwards into the void of subjugation that awaits him.
Things are made worse by the narrator’s inability to even rationalize his fears. “It was a mystery all insoluable,” he muses to himself; the house rendered his intellectual capabilities null as he tries, quite incoherently, to justify his fears. He arrives at the conclusion that somethings in the world can be altered the slightest degree to alleviate unaesthetic disasters, however, there is nothing he can physically do to help the terrifying arrangement of the areas surrounding the house of Usher.
Indeed, how does one cleanse a, “black and lurid tarn,” of its toxicities? How does one ignore the possibility of inevitable demise that would succeed an unfortunate slip of the foot and pull the wretched victim into the depths of the lake, with the doppelganger reflection of the mansion their last glimpse of the world? The phantasmagoric lake lays undisturbed and lifeless; however, the aforementioned distorted reflection of the house is worse than the tarn itself. The vacant, dead, eye-like windows watch the unfortunate visitor with its twin. Every move scrutinized, the narrator’s very soul searched through as he, with a shudder, tries to ignore the unsettling feeling of being watched and we, as the readers, would fain wish for him to leave.
The very fact that the house is isolated from the rest of the world brings with it a hint of secrecy, that there is a filth enclosed in the ancient House of Usher that the narrator, for his own sanity, should not uncover. Poe’s writing gives us every indication that nothing good resides within the house which, itself, is a reflection of the decaying line of Usher. The heavy foreshadowing sets in stone that the rest of the short story is not going to lighten up. The gothic elements, such as the imposing architecture and the dark imagery used, are at their literary finest; the mood and setting are both pervasive in their unrelenting gloominess.
In summation, the opening paragraph uses a mastery of the mechanics of the gothic genre to inject a feeling of inevitable condemnation; the mood of inherent claustrophobia coupled with the physically perishing surroundings of the House of Usher do not simply create but epitomize terror in their obscurity. The imagination of the reader is the writer’s greatest instrument – and Edgar Allan Poe knows exactly how to manipulate it.
…I apologize. But I am so proud of this essay that I cannot help but share it!