The Falls of the Houses of Usher

Posted on Wed, 2014-02-26 11:37

Kim Newman

First published in the September 1839 issue of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine – and a cornerstone of the often-reprinted short story collections Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque and Tales of Mystery and Imagination – Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ is one of the American author’s key works.  It harps on many of Poe’s recurrent themes – premature burial, romantic obsession, heightened senses as a symptom of insanity, hereditary sickness externalised in the decay of a building, incest, an apocalypse – and uses the classic European gothic concept of the haunted house, both as physical structure and an accursed family, in an American context.  An unnamed narrator pays a visit to his odd friend Roderick Usher, an oversensitive soul who lives with his sickly sister Madeline in the family mansion, a crumbling structure on the edge of a rancid tarn, and suffers from acute senses (especially hearing) which have prompted his withdrawal from the world.  Madeline dies and is entombed under the house, but Roderick hears her still-beating heart and knows he has buried her alive … she escapes, maddened, from the tomb and attacks Roderick.  As the siblings die together, the house collapses and falls into the tarn.  Inset is the poem ‘The Haunted Palace’, which had been published separately a few months before the story appeared.

With its enclosed setting and limited cast, the story has proved appealing to adaptors … besides the operas by Claude Debussy (written between 1908 and1917, and unfinished at the composer’s death) and Gordon Getty (2014) presented by Welsh National Opera, there have been operatic adaptations by Philip Glass (1987) and Peter Hammill (1991, revised 1999).  Other musical adaptations include an instrumental on The Alan Parsons Project’s album Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1976) and Nikita Koshkin’s ‘The Usher Waltz’ (1984), written for Roderick Usher’s preferred instrument, solo guitar.  Roderick Usher gets a name-check in Lindisfarne’s folk rock gothic single ‘Lady Eleanor’ (1970).  Poe  may well have drawn from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s ‘Das Majorat’ (1819), which shares several plot elements, and other authors have taken up the threads and written homages, sequels and reworkings of the material, most notably Ray Bradbury’s ‘Usher II’ (1950), in which the House of Usher (and the tarn) are recreated on the planet Mars in defiance of a puritanical regime which would eliminate mystery and imagination from human culture, and Robert Bloch’s ‘The Man Who Collected Poe’(1951), which models itself structurally on ‘Usher’ and recounts the return from the grave of the author himself who has been resurrected and imprisoned in a collection of Poe memorabilia by a demented fan of his work.  Robert McCammon’s impressive novel Usher’s Passing (1984) continues the history of the family into the 20th Century, linking hereditary corruption – which extends to cannibalism – to an armaments empire and American politics.

The story has been less-often filmed than ‘The Black Cat’, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ or ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’, even though it offers a more developed plot than these very interiorised tales of madness and torture.  In 1928, there were two silent film adaptations, both made outside the conventional film industry.  James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber’s ten-minute American avant-garde movie applies the some of the visual methods associated with German Expressionism a la The Cabinet of Dr Caligari to the story, while the French surrealist Jean Epstein’s La Chute de la maison Usher adopts a dreamer, more elliptical approach.  Those who cavil at Hollywood’s crassness in altering literary works might note that the impecably aesthetic Epstein makes Roderick and Madeline husband and wife rather than brother and sister and imposes a happy ending on the story – which prompted co-writer Luis Bunuel to walk off the film.  Ivan Barnett’s The Fall of the House of Usher (made in 1949, unreleased until 1956) is an extremely cheap British version of the story, notable mostly for the intense presence of Gwen Watford as an especially mad Madeline (the pun in the name, incidentally, is characteristic of Poe’s often-overlooked humour).

In 1960, producer-director Roger Corman persuaded Americal International Pictures to mount a widescreen adaptation (known in America as The House of Usher and abroad as The Fall of the House of Usher) with Vincent Price as a white-haired, neuraesthenic Roderick.  When the AIP execs insisted that a horror film should have a monster, Corman told them ‘the house is the monster’.  Luridly coloured, deliberately overripe in its dialogue and playing and full-blooded in its embrace of melodrama, this Usher set the tone for a whole cycle of 1960s Poe pictures, often with Price in the lead and usually climaxing with a mansion falling on the heads of the mad and the bad in an inferno (screenwriter Richard Matheson added a fire to the natural collapse of the story).  Almost all subsequent adaptations – starting with a 1966 episode of the British TV series Mystery and Imagination starring Denholm Elliott and Susannah York as seething, English-accented Ushers – have drawn as much from Corman as from Poe, with the exception perhaps of the Czech animator Jan Svankmajer’s striking short film Zanik domu Usheru (1982).

Other film adaptations include: Julian Soler’s Mexican Satanas de todoslos horrores (1974), which renames the family Gerard; James L.  Conway’s 1979 American TV movie with Martin Landau as Roderick; Jesus Franco’s Spanish-French Revenge in the House of Usher (1988), with Howard Vernon as Roderick and characters tipped in from Dracula and Franco’s earlier films; Alan Birkinshaw’s plodding but lurid The House of Usher (1989), set in England but shot in South Africa, with gimlet-eyed Oliver Reed as Roderick and gurning Donald Pleasence as the newly-created Walter Usher -- who shows how far the script strays from Poe; an episode of the obscure 1995 series Tales of Mystery and Imagination, hosted by Christopher Lee; Curtis Harrington’s essay-like short Usher (2002), in which the director-writer also plays Roderick; Daniel Kleinfeld’s parody Carefully (2003); Ken Russell’s peculiar The Fall of the Louse of Usher (2002), a charade filmed in his garden which assembles bits of many Poe tales along with kinky nurses, a sex scene between Godzilla and a blow-up doll and the director mugging as Dr Calamari; Hayley Cloake’s glacial modernisation The House of Usher (2006); David DeCoteau’s schlocky The House of Usher (2008), in which the house really is the monster (it’s alive); and an episode of the Poe anthology movie Requiem for the Damned (2012) directed by Robert Tinnell.