Son coeur est un luth suspendu;
Sitôt qu’on le touche il résonne
His heart is a suspended lute;
As soon as you touch it, it resonates.
The opening words of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher”. The line can refer to a few characters in the story. It could apply to Roderick Usher, whose life force seems “in tune with” and symbiotically dependent on the castle in which he resides, or it could apply to the narrator of the story, who is quite smitten by Roderick’s younger sister Madeleine Usher and acts on impulse and emotion.
The story opens with the narrator approaching the House of Usher, summoned there by an ailing Roderick. The narrator takes up residence in the castle, and the growing romance between the narrator and Madeleine meets the equally growing disapproval of Roderick.
As the tension increases, mysterious things start happening around the castle. The castle almost seems to attack the narrator while Roderick’s illness becomes more pronounced. Madeleine also takes to entering catatonic states with very little provocation.
As the situation becomes more dire, Roderick confides in the narrator the reason why he must disapprove of his romance with Madeleine. There is a curse on the Usher lineage. When Usher children are born, any Usher siblings develop a crazed, bloodthirsty madness and suffer horrible fates. Roderick and Madeleine years ago promised each other that they would be the end of their bloodline. Neither would have children, and the curse would end with their generation. This was their pact, and Roderick was determined to keep it.
This explanation does not deter the narrator in his pursuit of Madeleine, and Roderick takes matters into his own hands, killing his sister by burying her alive. I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to discover how the story resolves.
Poe’s work here is some of his best. The story and language are carefully crafted, evoking as much imagery with its tone and phrasing as with the words themselves. Poe understood that a good storyteller’s skill requires more than just a sizable vocabulary.
My own memory of The Fall of the House of Usher is a vague one. It was Hallowe’en, I don’t recall the year, and I was ready to go out trick-or-treating, but the local television station was playing The Fall of the House of Usher. It was likely the 1960 Roger Corman and Vincent Price version as I recall that it did not look very new. I knew nothing of Roger Corman and precious little of Vincent Price, but I remember I was instantly captivated by the dramatic establishing shots of the movie. A rider on horseback, picking his way through a dead, misty forest, approaching an aging stone house obscured by a thick ground fog. My mother, for a reason I still do not know, absolutely did not want me to watch that movie. Of course, her forbidding only made me more determined to watch it. She practically had to shove me outside to go trick-or-treating with my brother. I went, likely after pitching a bit of a fit. …And that is all that I remembered of The Fall of the House of Usher.
Many years later, the story of Usher would re-enter my life. As I entered my later teen years and devoured scores of vinyl discs, carefully rescued from record store bins and yard sales, I became enamored with many musical legends. One of those legends was and still is Alan Parsons. Parsons has a soft spot for Poe and his album “Tales of Mystery and Imagination” was entirely a musical adaptation of Poe’s works including The Raven, The Tell-Tale Heart and the Cask of Amontillado. Almost the whole second side of the album was Parsons’ own 16-minute, five-movement tribute to an unfinished operatic adaptation by Claude Debussy of The Fall of the House of Usher. Narration by Orson Welles was added to the track in a later mix.
Poe’s work here has certainly inspired many other artists throughout the years.
Originally published in Burton’s Gentlemen’s Magazine in September 1839, The Fall of the House of Usher is in the Public Domain. The Fall of the House of Usher is a roughly half-hour very satisfying read.
Download the ebook for free at Feedbooks.
Download the text of the story from Project Gutenberg.
Listen to a radio play of the story at the Internet Archive.
Watch a 1928 silent film adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber on GenXMedia’s YouTube channel. The abstract set design and surreal camera work would have made M.C. Escher proud.