The Fall of the House of Usher is 19 pages long. The Pit and the Pendulum is even shorter. By the standards of your average novel, these hardly make the grade. But, as David Rush writes in my edition of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die – a title that seems especially menacing this week – these works deserve inclusion “because it is simply impossible to imagine the modern novel without considering Poe’s masterful writing”.
I need to state here and now that I’ve never been a fan of the genre, in books or on film. Case in point: I was so traumatized by descriptions of Hitchcock’s Psycho that I only saw the film a few years ago – on TV, at a safe distance from the television set, with my eyes squeezed shut during the shower scene.
So, yes, when it comes to horror I’m a wuss. I attribute it to an overactive imagination combined with a lifetime of watching the news: there are enough scary things happening in real life without going out of your way to pay money to see them.
When I was 11, my best friend – I’ll call her Bonnie, because that was her name – loved horror flicks. She was a tomboy and an athlete and I don’t think she had a nervous bone in her body. She coaxed me into going with her to see The Fall of the House of Usher, the first of Roger Corman’s popular series of films based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. I don’t remember much about it because I had my eyes shut during the scary bits – which comprised most of the movie.
The next year, as if I hadn’t learned my lesson, Bonnie persuaded me to see The Pit and the Pendulum. I kept my eyes open and had nightmares for a week.
Between 1960 and 1965, Corman made eight films loosely adapted from Poe’s stories; if they were your introduction to Poe, as they were mine, you want to keep in mind that the key word here is “loosely”. They were meant to be low-budget horror flicks, and they were that, but they had Corman at the helm – who directed some 55 films, including The Little Shop of Horrors – and starred the inimitable Vincent Price. They were well-made, for the most part – especially The Masque of the Red Death – but they didn’t have much to do with the books.
To get back to those, I have a bone to pick with the 1001 Books editors: if the reason for including Poe is because of his influence on the modern novel, it would make more sense to include either The Murders in the Rue Morgue or The Purloined Letter. Or both. With these stories, and his amateur sleuth, the Chevalier C. August Dupin, Poe created the template for the modern detective novel. He wrote the rules, really: the concept of the armchair detective who outwits the local police; the object hidden in plain sight, invisible to everyone except, of course, the armchair detective; the concept of solving a crime by observation and deduction. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle called him “a model for all time”, and who are we to argue?
Poe’s horror tales, on the other hand, draw on the Gothic horror tradition begun by Horace Walpole in the 18th century and continued by Mary Shelley, Washington Irving, and a host of others. Dark and suspenseful as they are, they’re not groundbreaking. And if you’ve seen one dank, rat-infested, medieval dungeon – well, you’ve seen them all.
Set in Toledo, Spain, during the last days of the Inquisition, The Pit and the Pendulum features an unnamed narrator who falls into a swoon after being found guilty by a tribunal of white-lipped, black-robed judges. When he awakes he’s in a damp, airless chamber, so dark he cannot see his hand in front of his face. At first he fears he’s been locked in a tomb, but as he slowly feels his way around the walls it becomes apparent that he’s been placed in one of Toledo’s infamous dungeons. After he comes within inches of falling into a deep, circular pit, he realizes that this was supposed to be his fate – to fall into the abyss and drown.
Once again, he loses consciousness. This time, when he awakes, he finds he’s been strapped down to a wooden frame, facing the ceiling. Now there is just enough light to allow him to see that a large pendulum with a razor-sharp edge is suspended directly above him. It swings slowly back and forth, and begins to descend towards his chest. At the last moment, with the aid of the scraps of meat left out for him, he attracts the attention of the rats swarming up from the pit. They crawl over his body, chewing away at the straps that tie him down, and he’s able to slip free just in time.
The pendulum is raised to the ceiling, and the walls of the dungeon become red-hot. They begin to close in, pushing the prisoner closer to the edge of the pit. Just as he’s about to lose his foothold and fall to his death, there’s a blast of trumpets and the sound of voices shouting. The walls retreat, and an arm catches him just before he falls: “The French army had entered Toledo. The Inquisition was in the hands of its enemies.”
With The Fall of the House of Usher Poe gives us another unnamed narrator, one who arrives at the end of “a dull, dark, and soundless day” at the home of his childhood friend, Roderick Usher. Usher has written to him, begging him to come and see him in order to help alleviate some kind of mental disorder. The house itself, which stands on the brink of a “black and lurid tarn”, is ancient, its stones covered in fungus. Although the outer walls appear intact, he notices a barely perceptible fissure extending from the roof of the building down to the foundation.
His friend is glad to see him but is obviously not well:
“Surely, man had never before so terribly altered, in so brief a period, as had Roderick Usher! . . . The now ghastly pallor of the skin, and the now miraculous lustre of the eye, above all things startled and even awed me. His action was alternately vivacious and sullen. His voice varied rapidly from a tremulous indecision . . . to that species of energetic concision . . . which may be observed in the lost drunkard, or the irreclaimable eater of opium, during the periods of his most intense excitement.”
Usher confides to his friend that he suffers from a nervous affliction, made worse, he says, by his sister’s illness. The lady Madeleine is gradually wasting away, to the despair of her doctors, who can find neither a cause nor a cure. Her death, Usher says, will leave him “the last of the ancient race of the Ushers”.
Not long afterwards, Usher announces that his sister has died. He plans to bury her temporarily in the tombs underneath the house in order to keep her body away from the sinister designs of the physicians. As grave-robbing was a fairly common practice on the part of medical students, especially when the cause of death was “interesting”, the narrator agrees to help carry her body down to the small, damp, subterranean vault. At this point, he learns that the lady Madeleine and her brother were twins – something you’d assume he’d know, seeing that he and Roderick have been friends since boyhood.
But to continue:
A week goes by and Roderick become more and more uneasy. One stormy night, when the narrator cannot sleep, Roderick comes to his door in a state of complete agitation. He leads him to the window; looking out, they see that the house and grounds are enveloped in a strange, luminous vapour. In an effort to distract him, the narrator offers to read aloud. While he’s reading, he hears noises that match the descriptions in the books – the cracking and ripping of a wooden door, a dreadful, unnatural shriek, the clanging of a metal shield falling to the floor. He leaps to his feet and rushes to where his friend is sitting, rigid and staring at nothing, speaking softly and quickly, as if to himself.
“We have put her living in the tomb,” he says. And then: “I tell you that she now stands without the door!”
The door blows open and there stands the lady Madeleine, blood on her robes, her emaciated figure showing signs of some terrible struggle. With a low moan, she falls onto Roderick, and brings him lifeless to the ground. Fearing for his life, the narrator flees the building. He turns to see the house, in the light of the “full, setting, and blood-red moon” begin to crack along its fissure, eventually crumpling into the waters of the tarn.
A prolific genius, Poe was one of the most influential American writers of all time. His stories play on our deepest fears and anxieties – he knew about the dark bits at our core and brought them to life in ways that remain relevant today.
As Stephen King has put it, “Poe’s The Man. What more can I say?”