My family and I are profoundly distressed by Edgar Allen Poe’s recent short story “The Fall of the House of Usher”. We, who so often said yes when this forlorn orphan begged to visit, now learn he considers our home “melancholy” and one which pervades his spirit “with a sense of insufferable gloom.” Had Poe conveyed these and other malicious sentiments in private correspondence, or so indicated in a story bearing another name, we would have been insulted, certainly, but not mortified. My father, thankfully, is dead and was entombed several days before publication of this pathological attack. My mother, so willing a maternal surrogate for the solitary lad, has retreated to bed with nervous symptoms that render her incapable of pleasurable conversation. My sister, always gracious in deflecting Poe’s strange romantic advances, cannot hold down half what she eats. And I am scarcely in better condition, struggling with the nightmarish consideration of whether to shoot our tormentor or merely punch or sue him. Perhaps I shall do all three.
Our family attorney, in the manner of those in his profession, urges we “counterattack this libel of the baldest and most provable sort.” Though Poe hasn’t enough money to entice anyone, we could seize what he has and thereby force him into the streets. Such is a just fate for one who lies that several months ago I sent him a letter about my “acute bodily illness – of a mental disorder which oppressed (me) – and of an earnest desire to see (him), as his best, and indeed (my) only personal friend, with a view of attempting, by the cheerfulness of (his) society, some alleviation of (my) malady.” Reverse the parenthetical pronouns and you have the correct writer and recipient. I responded my family would always embrace him. That I had done so with trepidation, I did not mention. Some, though by no means all, of my aunts, uncles, and cousins had urged that Poe be kept at bay. And, aware of this longstanding disapprobation, subtle though it was, Poe erases their existence – “the entire family lay in the direct line of descent…It was this deficiency…the consequent undeviating transmission from sire to son” – implying we suffered from inbreeding. One is impelled to note Poe married his first cousin and wasn’t the first from that strange and alcoholic clan to do so.
Not everything Poe writes is a lie lest none of his lies be believed. He diverts readers to the truth that the Ushers possessed a “peculiar sensibility of temperament, displaying itself, through long ages, in many works of exalted art, and manifested of late, in repeated deeds of munificent yet unobtrusive charity.” Rather often our generosity, financial as well as spiritual, was bestowed upon the beggar Poe. I also at times sensed he resented not merely my parents’ wealth but that they had outlived his haunted and tubercular mother and father, who’d acted with mine in many fine plays.
The man who has never owned a home, and probably never shall, is gratified to describe the outside of our elegant Usher residence as being in a “crumbling condition” and beset by “extensive decay.” Inside my cavern he sees “dark draperies” and furniture that is “comfortless, antique, and tattered” and “an air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom.” About me he asserts that a “man had never before so terribly altered, in so brief a period, as had Roderick Usher! It was with difficulty that I could bring myself to admit the identity of the wan being before me with the companion of my early boyhood.” As an inveterate horseman and hunter who maintains a healthy color bequeathed by the sun, I am unamused by his description of my skin as of such “ghastly pallor” that he “doubted to whom (he) spoke.” And not merely that – “for many years (I) had never ventured forth” from my decaying family mansion, and had thus by pestilential means acquired some of its physical and spiritual decrepitude. I shan’t accuse Poe of having crawled from a bottle shortly before his arrival last winter. Let us, instead, be humane and suggest he appeared to be suffering from sleeplessness, starvation, and hysteria.
I am relieved Poe left my delightful wife out of his sinuous narrative – had he not, I would already have confronted him – but he by name states that Madeline, my sister for whom he’d forever yearned, “passed slowly through a remote portion of the apartment” and that I “buried” my face in “emaciated fingers through which trickled many passionate tears.” I’d done so because of my sister’s “approaching dissolution” which had “long baffled” her physicians. She would likely prefer the grave to life with Poe, but that is a choice this healthy woman need not make. Only in his story does Madeline succumb that night.
Poe is again honest, momentarily, when he observes my paintings evince “an intensity of intolerable awe,” and he in particular is moved by my rendering of a “long and rectangular vault or tunnel, with low walls, smooth, white, and without interruption or device… No outlet was observed in any portion of its vast extent, and no torch, or other artificial source of light was discernible; yet a flood of intense rays rolled throughout, and bathed the whole in a ghastly and inappropriate splendor.” This scene creates the mood for Poe’s macabre claim we lifted the lid of Madeline’s coffin and that I mentioned we were twins – which we are not – then temporarily stored her corpse, which bore “a faint blush upon the bosom and the face, and that suspiciously lingering smile upon the lip which is so terrible in death”, in a vault below his room.
At cruel hours in the dark, some eight days after Madeline’s demise, Poe states that “an irrepressible tremor gradually pervaded (his) frame and he “hearkened…to certain low and indefinite sounds which came through the pauses of the storm…(and induced) an intense sentiment of horror, unaccountable yet unendurable.” To this haunted creature I that night supposedly came for comfort, and he responded by reading to me a dated tale about dragon slaying. Fool, I was with my wife, and my sister rested comfortably down the hall. Yet, Poe projects his ghoulish world into my convivial home and protests his reading was most horrifically interrupted by a “harsh, protracted, and most unusual screaming or grating sound.” He doesn’t know if I also heard it. When he soon “became aware of a distinct hollow, metallic, and clangorous, yet apparently muffled reverberation,” he kindly places a hand on my shoulder, prompting me to bemoan: “Not hear it? – yes, I hear it, and have heard it. Long – long – long – many times, many hours, many days have I heard – yet… I dared not speak! We have put her living in the tomb!… Will she not upbraid me for my haste?”
Poe reveals that at “those doors there did stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher. There was blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame…then, with a low moaning cry, (she) fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated.” The intrepid Poe, beneath a “blood-red moon”, then flees across the tarn, which forthwith consumes the “fragments of the ‘House of Usher.”
Perhaps I should not attack the author litigiously or otherwise. The imaginary collapse of our lives and home is but a metaphor for the unrelenting nightmare inflicted on Edgar Allan Poe by his malfunctioning yet formidable brain. That knowledge suffices as revenge.