The September 1839 issue of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, a monthly periodical published out of Philadelphia, came fresh off the press with probably little fanfare. Along with its usual assortment of sporting articles, poetry, and reviews appeared a piece of fiction that few at the time might have guessed would live on as one of the greatest enduring masterpieces of American literature, “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
In July 1839, Edgar Allan Poe signed on to serve as editor of the magazine, published by a well-to-do actor and comedian William Evans Burton. It was one of several editorships to which Poe was appointed, and he agreed to supply a certain amount of material for the magazine in exchange for $10 per week. Along with a list of book reviews and poetry, Poe’s first story for Burton’s Magazine appeared in August 1839, followed that September by the first appearance of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Thanks to the wonders of modern technology and Google books, interested parties can read a scan of the story’s first appearance in those pages here.
While Poe’s later pieces, most notably his poem “The Raven” published in 1845, did garner him some critical acclaim, evidence of how his earlier works were received is difficult to find. One can only guess at what people thought of “The Fall of the House of Usher” when it first appeared. A horror story through and through, I can only guess with a grin at the reactions of folks as they read a tale like this for the first time in such an unassuming periodical. My own first readings of Poe took place in my teens, and now re-reading the tales twenty years later I find that I missed a lot. Not just because of the unaccustomed use of language, but also because of Poe’s subtle inferences which can slip one’s notice without careful reading.
Poe masterfully, if heavy-handedly, invokes a sense of dread from the outset of his tale. Told from the viewpoint of a childhood friend of Roderick Usher, the descriptions are at once thick with menace and foreboding as the narrator approaches the Usher estate. I find in reading Poe that you must throw away everything you know about modern fiction and recognize that few had really done this kind of writing before—such dark and oppressive tales that force the issue of dread upon you—and that much of what’s considered cliché these days is simply pastiche of those who first and famously trod that ground. Such is the case here. The language has a rhythmic cadence to it, as one might expect given Poe’s poetic skills, and drips with evocations of the dismal and dire. The narrator at once feels the gloom of the Usher grounds forced suffocatingly upon him.
(It bears mentioning that the next four paragraphs contain damnable spoilers, so if you haven’t read the tale, please don’t ruin it for yourself by traipsing through my Internet prattle.)
As the narrator marvels at the desolation of the grounds, he’s shocked to find his old friend in a similar state of deterioration, physically and mentally. The house and Roderick Usher himself are tied closely together by Poe, making each minute detail of description relevant to the horrific outcome. The house and grounds are in an extreme state of decay; Usher is seen in deep depression, demonstrating a manic sensitivity to noises, and a supposed delirium in which he professes belief that the plants and fungi growing outside the house possess a strange sentience. We’re also introduced briefly to Roderick’s twin sister Madeline, suffering from maladies of her own, catalepsy among them. Despondent and seemingly divorced entirely from the world around her, she drifts through and disappears from the scene, only to turn up dead the next time she appears on the page. The gripping conclusion of the tale comes after the narrator has helped the grieving Roderick entomb his “tenderly and deeply loved sister; his sole companion for many long years.” The final horror rears its head as—in the midst of a raging storm—the great doors to the chamber in which Roderick and the narrator sit reading are flung open to reveal the deathly visage of his sister’s “corpse,” bloody and clawed out of her tomb, stumbling against her brother and frightening him literally to death.
Nuances of the tale leave a lot to the imagination. The sister is represented as having an illness that makes her appear deathlike, thus spurring her premature burial, so her return from the grave is explained by natural means. Likewise a glow that appears around the House of Usher during a storm and just before his sister’s gruesome reappearance is explained as a “faintly luminous and distinctly visible” gas from the tarn, attributing the glow to natural phenomenon, as well. Certainly Roderick’s behavior is easily explained as madness, but Poe, in his inimitable way, insinuates that a spiritual sickness has come upon the house, and leaves the door open for the possibility that the eventual fall of the House of Usher is at least in part due to some supernatural force that has come against the once-great family for some unidentified evil. This “evil” itself is referenced twice — once by Roderick, who confides in his friend that he and his sister are victims of “a constitutional and family evil.” The second reference comes in a poem* attributed in the tale to Roderick, in which “evil things, in robes of sorrow, assailed the monarch’s high estate.”
But is the nature of the Usher evil truly unidentified?
This is where I note an important detail of this tale that utterly escaped my notice in those long-gone teenage years of mine: “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 had lain in direct line of descent.” Simply put, in keeping with many ancient lines of nobility, the Ushers never bred outside the family. Take this tidbit and add it to the mention of how “tenderly” Roderick loved his sister, how she was his “sole-companion for many years,” and an additional mention of “unnatural sensations” to which Roderick is given as a result of his illness, and you have grounds for suspicion of an incestuous relationship between them.
In the end, it is no mystery why “The Fall of the House of Usher” endures as an American literary classic. It is rife with mood and atmosphere, nuances and layers, not the least of which is symbolism nowhere more evident than in the comparison between Roderick and his sister as the last of the Usher line, and the cracked and ruined estate itself, which falls, after their deaths, into a pile of rubble and is swallowed by the tarn.
The Ushers have gone on to be celebrated in film, book, and audio media. B-movie king Roger Corman kicked off a run of Poe adaptations in 1960 with the Richard Matheson-scripted House of Usher. The film starred Vincent Price and changed the dynamic of the story by turning Price into a kind of paternal big brother, and casting Madeline as a prisoner of the estate from which her fiancée must set her free. The year 1984 saw an excellent and gripping homage to Poe’s story in the form of Usher’s Passing, a novel by Robert R. McCammon. Usher’s Passing opens with a scene in which a “real” Usher tracks down Poe in a run-down bar and upbraids him for slandering his family, and then transitions to the modern-day following Rix Usher, an estranged son who returns to the grim and sprawling family estate as the clan’s patriarch lies dying. In the book, Rix must struggle with not only what he is, but what — if anything — truly lurks on the grounds of the sprawling estate, and what’s behind the Ushers’ legacy of madness. More recently, Hellnotes reported the release of an original audio drama in the old-time-radio style, Macabre Mansion’s production of “The Fall of the House of Usher” starring Kevin Sorbo, John Billingsley, Bonita Friedericy, and Jim O’Rear as professional voice talents. An updated film adaptation starring Austin Nichols was released in 2006.
No matter your opinion of the original tale or the adaptations and homages that have followed, there is no denying the Ushers are truly one of the greatest and best-known families in the horror genre lineage — American horror royalty. If history is any indication, as the interest in Poe’s work as source material continues, we can expect that to remain true for many years to come.
*A footnote: The poem attributed to Roderick Usher was actually a poem by Poe that had been published as “The Haunted Palace” several months before the appearance of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” An interesting bit of trivia related to the poem’s title goes along with the Corman-Poe adaptations mentioned above. When Corman set out to make a film adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” in 1963, the studio insisted on a Poe-related title because those films had done so well. Thus Corman gave his Lovecraft adaptation the title of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Haunted Palace with a story credit to H.P. Lovecraft, and a screenplay by Charles Beaumont.
(This article originally appeared on the Elder Signs Press blog on November 12th, 2010.)
The latest installment in my Massacre Series currently underway for Silent Scream Publications is here just in time for the cold weather reading months.
Written under the pseudonym Max Deimos, this book is my latest opportunity to let my hair down and have a little fun with teen horror fiction. Nope, not trying to create great literature here, folks – just good entertainment! (At least it’s entertainment for those who like this sort of thing. You know, all the cool kids, like us.)
As with the first book in the series, I’ve given a respectful nod to the horror movies and stories I enjoyed in my youth, but also tried to blend enough twists and disparate elements to keep things interesting. My sincere hope is that fans of b-grade monster horror and supernatural thrillers will find this to be a quick, enjoyable read to help pass the time in airports, over lunch hours, or (even better) on your family’s ski vacation! Hey, there’s even a little bit of romance to keep things spicy.
Now available in an inexpensive trade paperback and all ebook formats! Use the links below to explore your preference:
I keep reading John Tigges novels. As a collector of 1980s pulp, I’m fortunate enough to have found them all in decent condition over the years. Occasionally the urge strikes me to revisit the fiction of my youth (call it a nostalgic yearning), and John Tigges’ fiction is one of several authors whose work I reach for in those moments.
KISS NOT THE CHILD works as a stand-alone novel, but it picks up with the same story line from UNTO THE ALTAR precisely where it left off. With this realization it also dawned on me that GARDEN OF THE INCUBUS must be part one of this series of books, given all of the backstory that is dumped about Adriana’s mother’s devilish experiences as a nun in the convent. Fortunately, I’d already read UNTO THE ALTAR, but now I’ll have to go back and read GARDEN OF THE INCUBUS just so I have the full history in case any of his other books are a continuation of this story.
Whereas UNTO THE ALTAR follows the misadventures of Adriana Brevenger at the hands of devil worshipers in their secluded island castle, KISS NOT THE CHILD picks up with Adriana’s college friend, Ramsey Flint, heading out on a mission to find her missing friend, or at least discover what happened to her.
Overall this book was enjoyable. I read it quickly. It is definitely pulp horror, and suffers from what I feel is pretty bad prose, but it’s not unreadable. There’s a lot of clunky phrasing and inelegant passages, which really I’ve come to expect in a novel like this. I knew what I was getting into here. It’s okay. What this novel did well was give me a sense that something big was going on (plausibility aside). Multiple international settings gave me a sense that I was on an adventure with our intrepid protagonist Ramsey Flint, and that was pretty cool. Also, some of the horrific things that happen in this book are laugh-(or groan)-out-load gruesome, sure to please the fan of cheesy, over the top horror.
Given that I went into this knowing well the weaknesses of past Tigges novels I’ve read, I ended this one feeling satisfied. If you’re willing to forgive some predictability and clunky prose, but like pulp fiction and cheesy, over the top, in-your-face horror, you might enjoy KISS NOT THE CHILD.
Note that, given what I know now, this is part three of a series of books that Leisure Books didn’t bother to market as related in anyway. It’s not required to read them in any order, but it will help:
- GARDEN OF THE INCUBUS
- UNTO THE ALTAR
- KISS NOT THE CHILD
We’re happy to announce that our new horror novel, NIGHT WRAITH, will be published in late 2015 by SST Publications in Hardcover, Trade Paperback, and eBook formats.
SST Publications is an independent publisher of all things dark. Their most recent books include the erotic horror anthology Peep Show, Volume 2 and the debut dark, thriller novel Don’t Stand So Close by screenwriter/director Eric Red (The Hitcher, Near Dark). They have recently launched a new horror fiction and dark art magazine Beware the Dark, which is a full-color, high-quality produced mag of between 100-130 pages bringing you the best dark and disturbing fiction and artwork. SST owner Paul Fry recently acquired the exclusive comic/graphic novel rights to Joe R. Lansdale’s entire ‘Hap and Leonard’ series of dark crime books, Richard Laymon’s classic horror novel The Cellar, and has signed a three-book deal with Cemetery Dance Publications owner Richard Chizmar. SST publishes their titles in multiple formats which are distributed worldwide by Ingram, the world’s largest book distributor.
We’re very excited to be working with Paul Fry and SST Publications on NIGHT WRAITH. Stay tuned for more news on the novel, sign up for our newsletter, or follow us on Twitter @FulbrightHawkes.
For more information about SST Publications, check out their website at www.sstpublications.co.uk.
In 1971, the year I was born, THE OTHER by Thomas Tryon spent six months on the New York Times bestseller list, side by side with THE EXORCIST by William Peter Blatty. This was the dawning of a new age of horror fiction that would last for the next 20-some years — a surge which largely started with the publication of Ira Levin’s ROSEMARY’S BABY in 1967.
Thomas Tryon followed up the success of THE OTHER with his second novel, HARVEST HOME, in 1973. The premise of the novel strikes at the core desire of many who crave a simpler life. I’m guessing it rang true for many back in those days — those who’d spent years watching or participating in the counter-culture movement, the battle for civil rights, the space race, Watergate, and Vietnam. The world probably seemed to be going mad. I’d venture to say it still rings true today; not a week goes by that my wife and I don’t discuss our retirement plans to move to a smaller town, get a simpler job, live a simpler life. It must be the dream of a lot of folks run ragged by cities and high-pressure corporate jobs: find some peace, get back to nature.
In the book, when Ned and his wife Beth are out driving in the countryside, they come across Cornwall Coombe, a quaint, old-fashioned village nestled in the hilly Connecticut countryside. The idyllic town calls to them with its preternatural charm. They eventually transplant their lives and their teenage daughter Kate to this world seemingly untouched by the advancement of time.
As any good reader can guess, this is all too good to be true. Ned soon learns that the community is set very deep in its ways. Despite the church bells every Sunday, the village’s ways are ancient, harkening back to a time of earth-worship and paganism. By the time he begins to discern the full scope of this truth, he and his family are deeply enmeshed in the community. Events that come to pass in the story are incrementally more mysterious and disturbing than what came before. The truth of what sustains this “peaceful” community is a foundation rooted deep in horror and superstition, perpetuated by the town’s matriarch, the Widow Fortune.
HARVEST HOME works well on many levels. It is a story of a marriage through good and bad times, a story of love and yearnings. It is a tale of friendship, the allure of “the old ways,” and teens who long to see the world outside their hometown. As Ned uncovers the town’s mysteries deep in the woods of Soakes Lonesome and the drifting ghosts of the Lost Whistle Bridge, as he watches the annual rituals centered on the sowing and harvest of corn, he learns the true nature of horror lying beneath the idyllic surface, a discovery that soon leads Ned into dangerous territory, and puts his family at the heart of it all.
This feels like a brilliant novel. It certainly helps to understand the climate of the time in which it was written — in the wake of the social upheaval of the 1960s, the 1970s also saw a heightened interest in paganism and the occult. In context of the era, with an understanding of the way horror novels were written in the 1970s, a reader can find a lot to love about HARVEST HOME.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. The prose was fantastic. The story contains all the elements one hopes to find in a novel. I recommend this book to fans of literary horror, particularly those who enjoy the great horror novels of the 1970s.
- A Constitutional and Family Evil: Ruminations on the “The Fall of the House of Usher”
- Get Your Winter Horror Fix with SKI LODGE MASSACRE
- 1980s Pulp Horror Review: KISS NOT THE CHILD by John Tigges
- New Fulbright & Hawkes Horror Novel Accepted for Publication in Late 2015
- HARVEST HOME by Thomas Tryon is a Hallmark of 1970s Horror Fiction
- ELDERWOOD MANOR is “Dark and Atmospheric, Very Scary”
- Kindle Countdown Deal: THE DEVIL BEHIND ME is 99¢ this Weekend Only
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