Poe’s stories are famously short, they can be read in a single sitting, so I’ve decided to do a post here about how I recently read two of his most iconic pieces – The Fall of the House of Usher, and The Tell-Tale Heart – and how the experience was for me.
I’ve never really studied too much Poe. We covered The Tell-Tale Heart in secondary school, and briefly looked at his works during the Gothic Literature portion of my University years, but for me reading a story because you have to and because you want to produce vastly different reading experiences. I’m slowly going back through texts I read at school, and at Uni, and rediscovering them through the lense of someone who isn’t sitting an exam on them, or reading them for Marxist subtext and Freudian slips. Sure, I write reviews for you guys, but this is more of a friendly conversation than ‘Discuss the sexual subtext of Dracula in 3000 words citing 16,000 sources and using only latin verbs’. Now in recent months I’ve been trying to use my local library resources more often, and mine has a page regarding ebook and audiobook availability. From this, and a vague recollection from University, I found Project Gutenberg over at http://www.gutenberg.org/. The project is entirely free, running on donations, and makes a lot of classic literature widely available. It is through here that I found the short stories I am reviewing today. Please do check it out!
The Fall of the House of Usher
The first thing I noticed about Poe upon reading this, one of his works I’ve heard mentioned the most, is that he loves a run-on sentence. For example:
“I looked upon the scene before me – upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain – upon the bleak walls – upon the vacant eye-like windows – upon a few rank sedges – and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees – with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium – the bitter lapse into every-day life – the hideous dropping off of the veil.”
Edgar mate, cut it down.
I am not a morning person, so reading this first thing on a Saturday possibly wasn’t my wisest decision, but after a coffee I was primed and ready to read. What I found was a lot of the hallmarks of classic, gothic horror that we’ve all come to know and love – the dilapidated house, the isolated surroundings, mysterious illnesses (usually in women), and a good old family curse. The House of Usher, you see, refers both to the house itself and the family that reside within – the last remnants of which are a brother and sister duo – Roderick and Madeline, the former losing his mind and the latter dying of an illness described thus:
“A settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affections of a partially cataleptical character were the unusual diagnosis.”
I asked our echo dot what cataleptical meant, and she didn’t know, but Google tells me it means ‘a nervous condition characterized by muscular rigidity and fixity of posture regardless of external stimuli, as well as decreased sensitivity to pain’. So she looks like a corpse, essentially, and acts like one too.
Can you see where this is going?
I hope you can.
Invited by the master of the House of Usher, our narrator is a school friend of his who seeks to raise his friend’s spirits by spending some time with him, painting, reading and listening to him play music.
“His long improvised dirges will ring forever in my ears.”
Here he sounds like that guy at a party who breaks out a guitar.
Of course, because this is gothic horror, there is a storm. During this storm, the terrifying, phantasmagorical (how great is that word?) nature of the House of Usher erupts and in a sequence that is genuinely creepy we witness the titular fall of the House of Usher.
So what did I think?
Well, aside from Poe’s tendency to create entire paragraphs out of a single sentence, I really enjoyed this short story. It had all the hallmarks of a good, classic horror story and I can see why it became one of those tales mentioned whenever the genre is discussed. It’s incredibly short, so do give it a read!
The Tell-Tale Heart
I read this in school years ago, and I could remember quite enjoying it so it became a logical choice for my Poe reading list. It is another short story and can be summarised thus:
“I’m not mad look how not mad I am look how carefully and logically I murdered this old man*”.
The Tell-Tale Heart is narrated by a man whose previous suffering of an unnamed disease left him with sharpened senses – particularly hearing. Also, apparently sight, because he decides to murder his elderly neighbour for the logical and rational reason that he doesn’t like his eyes.
“I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture – a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees – very gradually – I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the yee forever.”
As you can see, absolutely the narrative of a sane, reasonable man. I mean:
“How, then, am I mad? Hearken! And observe how healthily – how calmly I can tell you the whole story.”
Totally nothing to worry about here. As an aside, the word hearken also needs to make a comeback. The story gets gradually more and more unbelievable – from the fact that he manages to take apart and store the old man’s body without a “stain of any kind” (“A tub had caught all – ha! ha!”) to the fact that it is not his demeanour or the fact that he’s clearly not a mentally healthy man that gives him away, oh no, it is the old man’s beating heart.
Under the floor.
Which he can hear because of his sensitive hearing.
Even though the man is dead.
All jokes aside though, this is a chilling and fascinating little read and definitely my favourite of the two, and was absolutely the one that most made me want to read more of Poe’s works. Seeing horror grow as a massively popular genre is amazing, but so is looking back to classic tales that left an indelible mark on literary history.
If I were to give these two stories an overall rating, it would be 4 out of 5. What can I say? I’m a novel girl at heart, and I’m hard to win over with a short story, but even years later these classic tales hold enough of the chilling and the macabre to be worthy of reading and discussion, and I genuinely enjoyed my little foray into American Gothic.
Overall rating: 🐦🐦🐦🐦 4 ravens out of 5 (I know, that’s a pigeon, but you try finding a Raven emoji)
*Not an actual quote, it is far too short a sentence for Poe to have written it.