What happens in “The Fall of the House of Usher”? This story contains many suggestions of psychic and supernatural influences upon the feelings of the narrator and the nerves of Roderick Usher. But the influences are not defined. No ghosts appear. Surely, Poe as craftsman intended the story to do what it does, to arouse a sense of unearthly terror that springs from a vague source, hinted and mysterious. Poe stated that his aim in tales of terror was to create “terror … not of Germany but of the soul,” or not of the charnel but of the mind. He wrote to Thomas W. White, owner of the Southern Literary Messenger, that tales of terror are made into excellent stories by “the singular heightened into the strange and mystical.” The influences that seem to drive Roderick Usher to madness, to kill him and Madeline, and even to destroy the House are certainly strange and mysterious. They seem rooted in some postulate of the supernatural, but the postulate is concealed.
Roderick seems engaged in a struggle against a power that he feels to be supernatural. Apparently, as in the strange books he reads, he seeks knowledge of this power and how to combat it. He has found some explanations in a quasi-scientific theory about the sentience of vegetable matter. He seeks the help of objective reason by calling upon the narrator, to whom he repeatedly attempts to explain the nature of his invisible foe. But the narrator refuses to believe that the threatening power exists outside Roderick’s imagination.
Hints that may suggest a vampire appear in the first view of the House. The vegetation around the House is dead; though water is usually a symbol of life, the “black and lurid tarn” seems dead. It amplifies the House, reflecting it in “remodelled and inverted images.” The narrator feels “an iciness” and “a sickening of the heart.” He sees “about the whole mansion .. . a pestilent and mystic vapor, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible and leaden-hued.” On entering the House, the narrator meets the family physician, whose countenance wears “a mingled expression of low cunning and perplexity.” The physician accosts him “with trepidation.”
Certain details about Roderick Usher seem significant. As a boy in school he displayed a hereditary “peculiar sensibility of temperament.” This sensibility would make Roderick an easy prey to psychic or supernatural influence. His present illness has developed since he has lived in the House, “whence, for many years, he had never ventured forth.” Thus, some influence in the House is suggested. It may be vampiric. Montague Summers ‘s study of vampire lore states that when a person psychically sensitive even “visits a house which is powerfully haunted by malefic influences . . . a vampirish entity may . .. utilize his vitality,” causing “debility and enervation” in the victim.
Let us turn to the events of the story to discover what [Roderick] possibly knew. As the narrator approaches the House, he observes that the windows are “eye-like.” Roderick’s poem later gives the palace the features of a human head. These suggestions seem to mean that the House itself has some evil, destructive life, manifest in a spirit faintly visible as a vapor. Can it be regarded as a kind of vampire? In vampire lore, places or houses may be possessed: “Even to-day there are places and there are properties in England which owing to deeds of blood and violence . .. entail some dire misfortune upon all who seek to enjoy … them.”
Roderick’s symptoms include “a morbid acuteness of the senses; the most insipid food was alone endurable; he could wear only garments of certain texture; the odors of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured by even a faint light; and there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror.” These are specific symptoms of vampiric attack. Vampires, if not always their polluted victims, seldom touch ordinary food. Though some vampires, for instance Ruthven in Polidori’s The Vampyre, wear ordinary clothing, most vampires appear in the garments of the grave. If Poe had vampire lore in mind, why did he say “the odors of all flowers”? We may look first at odors. Disgusting odors are associated with vampires. A vampire’s breath is “unbearably fetid and rank with corruption, the stench of the charnel.” This is the very material Poe rejected. The House draws vitality instead of blood; flowers seem a similar substitute for heightening the gory into the strange and mysterious. Poe’s “all flowers” had to be left vague. If Poe had mentioned garlic and its whitish flower, universally accepted specifics against vampirism, he would have given away the secret he sought to suggest, but conceal. It seems significant that Poe mentions flowers at all. No garden can grow near the House; no flowers would be ordered from a tenant or a market if Roderick finds them oppressive. The mention seems Poe’s tauntingly deliberate effort to be faithful to the lore he was using, without defining it. Perhaps the odors of flowers were “oppressive,” rather than welcome to ward off attack, because Roderick was already polluted to the extent that he shared the aversions of the vampire. Most vampires cannot endure daylight; they must return to the tomb at the first hint of dawn. Roderick’s horror of all sounds except those of stringed instruments seems natural for anyone who senses the presence of a demon. Poe often associates stringed instruments with angelic forces.
After detailing his symptoms, Roderick cries out: “I must perish in this deplorable folly.” What folly? for none is mentioned. Perhaps his folly is that, through living as a recluse in the House and through curious reading, Roderick had laid himself open to attack. A “Vampire was often a person who during his life had read deeply in poetic lore and practised black magic.” Roderick says,”I dread the events of the future, not in themselves, but in their results.” Perhaps he does not dread death, but fears becoming a vampire if killed by a vampire.
At this point Roderick states—specifies—that the attack upon his vitality comes from the House. The narrator, reporting with scorn, says: “He was enchained by certain superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling which he tenanted … in regard to an influence … which some peculiarities in the mere form and substance of his family mansion had … obtained over his spirit—an effect which the physique of the gray walls and turrets, and of the dim tarn into which they looked down, had . . . brought about upon the morale of his existence.”
Madeline seems a victim of the same attack, and she dies. When? On the evening of the first day Roderick tells the narrator “with inexpressible agitation” that Madeline had “succumbed … to the prostrating power of the destroyer.” But she is not declared dead, that she “was no more” and is ready for burial, until several days later. Perhaps in the interval she is undead, “living” as a vampire. All definitions say that a person killed by a vampire becomes a vampire with a craving to pass on the pollution….
During the entombment, the narrator notices a “striking similitude between the brother and sister.” Roderick explains that he and Madeline “had been twins” and that “sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature had always existed between them.” What were these sympathies? T. O. Mabbott has stated, I think rightly, that “Poe’s twins share their family soul with the house, and Roderick knew it.” If Madeline was destroyed by the House, she is now a vampire; a vampire attacks first its closest bloodkin. A French writer on vampire lore, Augustin Calmet, says: “Cette persecution ne s’arrete pas a une seule personne; elle s’etend jusqu’a la derniere personne de la famille.” This feature of vampirism is presented in Lord Byron’s “The Giaour.” A curse dooms an Infidel to become a vampire and to … “suck the blood of all thy race; There from thy daughter, sister, wife At midnight drain the stream of life?”
Thus, just because he is a twin, Roderick has reason to be terrified of Madeline….
If Madeline were an ordinary vampire buried in a cemetery, she could dematerialize, escape through crevices, and rematerialize. But how could she escape from a sealed coffin in an airtight vault closed and secured by an iron door? I suggest that Poe established these seemingly impossible conditions because he had in mind a supernatural agency in Madeline’s escape. If she is now a vampire killed by the House and therefore the agent of the House, the House might help set her free. To do so, it seems, required the total vitality of the House, with added draughts from Roderick’s life, all redoubled in power by the full moon, and engaged in the violent effort manifested in the storm. How could the House help set her free? Let us observe below how it opened heavy doors for her to reach Roderick.
Roderick hears her approach and asks, “Is she not hurrying to upbraid me for my haste?” He may mean his haste in sealing her in the vault before his own death. Perhaps Roderick knows that when he dies—if he can die before Madeline sucks his blood—the House and Madeline must also die in “final death-agonies.”
As Madeline approaches with a “heavy and horrible beating of her heart,” typical of the vampire, Roderick speaks in his “gibbering murmur, as if unconscious of [the narrator’s] presence.” What is he saying? Perhaps part of his monologue is an incantation from the Vigilia. When Madeline reaches the “huge antique panels” of the chamber, she simply stands there waiting. The doors open. The narrator says,”It was the work of the rushing gust.” How can this be? These doors face the interior of the House, not the storm outside. The casement has been closed. This gust may be the spirit of the vampire House, rooted in Madeline’s vault, and manifest in the forces of the storm. When the doors of the chamber throw “slowly back … their ponderous and ebony jaws,” between these jaws stands the “lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher,” with “blood upon her white robes.” Are these images a symbolist painting: between the jaws of the vampire House stands its white and bloodstained tooth poised to plunge into Roderick’s life-stream?
For a moment, Madeline “remained trembling and reeling to and fro upon the threshold.” Perhaps she wavered between remnants of human compassion aided by Roderick’s incantations, and the evil power driving her onward. But she “then, with a low moaning cry, 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.” Was Roderick’s death heart failure? The narrator does not stop to observe: he “fled aghast.” But the somewhat erotic embrace of its victim, the prone position for the kill, and the moan of pleasure are commonplaces of vampire lore. In terms of this lore, Madeline reached the jugular vein. But as Roderick dies, Madeline and the House die, for their source of vitality is cut off. Does Roderick continue undead, a vampire by pollution, as “he had anticipated”? When a vampire is destroyed, it squeals or screams horribly. As the fragments of the House sink into the tarn, there is a “shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters.” Perhaps, as both Madeline and the House die in the instant of Roderick’s death, the curse is fulfilled, and Roderick’s soul is, after all, saved by the finally innocuous water. The narrator observes no more except the “full, setting, and blood-red moon.”
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Edgar Allan Poe, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.
J.O. Bailey, “What Happens in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,”‘ in American Literature, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, January, 1964, pp. 445-66.