The Fall of the House of Usher
is one of Poe's more popular stories, especially among his earlier ones, but, as it just so happens, it is also, in my opinion, one of his worst.
This short story is about a house owned by a slightly insane man named Usher, whose sister is ridden with malady. Usher's friend, who acts as narrator of the story, visits Usher at his home at Usher's own request and so provides us with a first hand account of the madness he witnesses in the eerie house of Usher.
Now, it may appear that I provided a fairly good, or at the very least sufficient, synopsis of this tale, as I'm sure anyone who has read it can attest to. But, had I been asked to summarize this story after only reading it once I would have been at a lose for words.
The first time I read this story I was unable to finish it. I nearly made it through but alas it was to no avail. I had the urge to throw this book against the wall at times. It was an extremely frustrating first read, one which I can only compare to my reading of Kafka's [b:The Trial|17690|The Trial|Franz Kafka|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1320399438s/17690.jpg|2965832] in that it seemed convoluted and pointless and I, for the most part, had no idea what was going on nor did I really care.
But this is Poe. I like Poe. (Actually, I quite like Kafka too, just not The Trial
). Nonetheless I tried again, this second time with the accompaniment of an audiobook. This, admittedly, did help matters a bit and made it a more enjoyable and coherent read.
Before I discuss the negatives allow me to detail the scarce positives. I did like the story's symbolism. The slow destruction of the house mirroring man's own destruction into sanity is nice. I also liked Usher's insanity. He was essentially a hypochondriac, rendered as such only because his family had a history of illness and so he too expected to be ill. It is only his expectations that make it so. This theme is later revisited when Usher buries his sister alive. Allow me to cheap out and quote Wikipedia here: "he buries his sister alive because he expects to bury her alive, creating his own self-fulfilling prophecy."
That's the good. That's what I liked. That paragraph right up there. That's all. Now, onto the bad.
When writing descriptively there is a fine line, especially in horror stories. On one hand you want to paint a well enough and detailed enough picture so that the reader can get immersed in the story and have in their mind very potent imagery of the unfolding horror. On the other hand you don't want to be so descriptive that it bores the reader and becomes so very unterrifying in its detail. I suppose a balance must be struck.
Another problem that is all too frequent with many writers is when there is more describing being done than there are things happening. There's active writing and descriptive writing, and of course ideally both should be used to complement each other, but when one far outweighs the other the serious problem arises of either overly-descriptive writing or overly-bare-boned writing.
Poe, to me, was always very good in his descriptive writing. He tends to describe what happens or to have happen what was described (in that events are prefaced by the building of a scene's background). It always has a point, whether it is to build atmosphere, to develop or portray character, or even to carry the story along. Because if there's one thing I don't like, no matter how beautifully written, it's self-indulgent descriptions. But Poe, unlike so many others, never really felt self-indulgent to me. He, with his poetic words, painted beautiful imagery but, like with all the best paintings, it went much deeper than mere visuals.
In [b:The Tell-Tale Heart|899492|The Tell-Tale Heart (Creative Classic)|Edgar Allan Poe|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1317724096s/899492.jpg|19034527] the narrator goes into much detail about an old man's eye, because, let alone the fact that the eye is a central point of the plot, the narrator has hyperactive senses and it is his dwelling on such small things that is part of his psyche and it is his psyche which fuels the story's events. In [b:The Black Cat|391724|The Black Cat|Edgar Allan Poe|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1174399925s/391724.jpg|15570126] the narrator's descriptions not only share many of the same purposes with The Tell-Tale Heart
but they also portray his overwhelming of guilt and also allows the reader to pick up on the narrator's inconsistencies and to lose faith in the narrator's reliability. In [b:The Cask of Amontillado|261240|The Cask of Amontillado|Edgar Allan Poe|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1327936575s/261240.jpg|1405544] the descriptive text plays directly into the narrative in that it plays on the reader's perception and (I won't give too much away) heightens the effect of the story's ending.
So what makes The Fall of the House of Usher
different from these other aforementioned stories? Well, let's see. Most of the descriptions deal with the detail of the house. There's a few reasons this can be good. In many cases a setting is put to much description in order to familiarize the reader with the place and make them feel as if it is a place as familiar to them as their own home (many films do this, such as Black Christmas
which makes good use of the camera by showing you every corner of the house so that you can almost tell where exactly the serial killer is in the house just by his footsteps). But The Fall of the House of Usher
doesn't do it for this reason. It doesn't necessarily try to familiarize you with the house. What it more so does is, in its descriptions, it mirrors insanity. The house feels haunted just as the mind of the man living within appears haunted. And together the house and man, for what is the house of Usher if not Usher himself, fall into destruction. Well, that's good; it helps to build up the symbolism. In describing the house Poe is, in turn, also describing a character.
It's not that the story is completely self-indulgent or masturbatory. Nay, Poe at his worst is still better than that. What it is is the descriptiveness is done poorly. In other words, ineffectively. Descriptive writing, like poetry and philosophy, is always best read slow. You need to take it in and allow your mind time to build the imagery and really focus on each descriptor. That's nearly impossible to do here, no matter how slow you read, because of the writing style.
This is probably Poe's densest story. It's extremely verbose. The entire thing is just so wordy that much of it goes over your head, thus defeating the purpose of descriptive writing. And in that way it is a bit self-indulgent because many things that could of been said in a few words took entire paragraphs. A lot of it was unnecessary and honestly felt like filler. For a short story it takes quite some time to get through. I'm sure many readers and Poe lovers would argue that every detail is relevant...well, maybe so, but it sure didn't feel like it and I'm not the one to go and spend days dissecting the writing. I love the element of totality in many of Poe's stories but The Fall of the House of Usher
I find to be a poor example of it.
It's a tedious read and takes enormous effort to get through. My mind has the want to compare it to the more detailed parts of [b:At the Mountains of Madness|32767|At the Mountains of Madness|H.P. Lovecraft|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1320561014s/32767.jpg|17342821], which is still a fine book overall mind you, or to the more tedious parts of [b:Moby-Dick|153747|Moby-Dick; or, The Whale|Herman Melville|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1327940656s/153747.jpg|2409320], as I can only imagine. A thought that makes sense seeing that both H.P. Lovecraft and Herman Melville were highly influenced by Poe's work.
The argument that Poe's slow writing style ruins any chances of suspense or tension is indeed a valid one but it is more true for this story than for any of his others. It's slowness is unnecessary, it's descriptions are confusing, the story is convoluted, it's formulaic and thus boring, and the fact that you'll probably need a dictionary on-hand to understand half of the words in here doesn't help matters in the slightest.
The story is also not very strong. Granted it does deal heavily with the human psyche and it does have a certain level of ambiguity to it, but Poe, in later stories, dealt with psychology better and in more interesting ways and crafted stories with more open yet satisfying and thought-provoking ambiguity than he did here. And in a charming writing style no less!
The story may seem complex and intricate but it's not; it's actually quite the simple story, hidden in its mimic of complexity by its verbose writing and long sentences. Complex and well crafted? No. Convoluted? Yes. Its intricacies never double as necessities.
Who knows, maybe this story will appeal more to others but it's not something I can recommend to anyone besides Poe completionists and I certainly wouldn't recommend it as an introduction to Poe, as it is not only one of his most challenging works but also, to me, one of his most disappointing.
1.5 out of 5 stars