The House of Usher will be the first literary house that this paper will examine. It is important to start with Poe’s piece not only for the sake of chronology in the development of dangerous homes in literature, but also to see the evolution of technique being used by writers to demonstrate this indescribable fear of architectural features of gothic revival mansions that appears to be intimately connected to gothic literature.
In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the primary literary technique being used is the atmosphere of distrust. At the very beginning of the short story it appears that this center of distrust is the result of dishonesty from the unnamed narrator of the story. This notion is only intensified by the strange disconnect the narrator attempts to create between himself and Roderick as the speaker describe their relationship. One chief example being that the narrator claims to have been “as boys… intimate associates” while simultaneously being shocked that Roderick had a twin sister Madeline who has passed (Poe 3). This could be overlooked, assuming that the speaker’s use of childhood friend is an exaggeration and intended to imply only that they were childhood classmates; however, this is further complicated by the speaker’s knowledge of the Usher family tendencies toward, “”that suggest a more intimate relationship than classmates and would again include knowledge of a female Usher and her relationship to Roderick.
As the story progresses and a further examination is done of the speakers words specifically looking at the house and the grounds, readers can see that the source of paranoia and distrust is not the result of the speaker. Instead, the speaker is caught in the same trap that has caught Roderick and presumably had caught Madeline. This trap is the fear of the actual architectural spaces of the house and the atmosphere that has spread across the grounds. This atmosphere being described as one that “had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees”(Poe 4). This distinct and unheavenly atmosphere is according to which appears to hinder the growth of plants and shrubbery around the home. Also the narrator notes that the windows are “vacant and eye-like,” suggesting some sort of secret and a source for the overall feeling of distrust prevalent in the atmosphere of the area. Finally the speaker notes a large crack in the newly remodeled façade. This crack seems quite significant and may like a person “cracking up,” be another feature that adds to the atmosphere of distrust that becomes so prevalent between the characters and the house through the story.
This atmosphere is equally thick once the speaker enters the Usher home. “The influence which these surroundings of the decayed house and the stagnant tarn have exerted on his life and the lives of his ancestors, is recognized and meditated upon by the narrator early in the tale” and quickly reveal the source of agitation that caused Roderick to write to the speaker to come (275). Upon entering the house the speaker begins to enter the same paranormal fears that have gripped Roderick since his sister’s illness. This marks a change in the speaker. Prior to entering the house the speaker seems to be disconcerted by the house but never implies any feelings of danger or supernatural. This changes when the speaker begins to examine the internal architecture of the house, particularly the windows. The speaker notes that the windows are “long, narrow, and pointed, and at so vast a distance from the black oaken floor as to be altogether inaccessible from within(7). In addition the narrator hints that the subject of Usher’s fear and malady is a result of superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling which he tenanted. As these things are added up the narrator suggests that he is slowly being overtaken by the same fancies that Usher is. The speaker describes a growing fear in relationship to ordinary objects that the speaker claims to normally be well accustomed to:
carvings of the ceilings, the sombre tapestries of the walls, the ebon blackness of the floors, and the phantasmagoric armorial trophies which rattled as I strode, were but matters to which, or to such as which, I had been accustomed from my infancy–while I hesitated not to acknowledge how familiar was all this–I still wondered to find how unfamiliar were the fancies which ordinary images were stirring up suggesting that the architectural features of the house appear to have the same sinister atmosphere. (Poe 6)
This growing fear suggests that there is something different in the Usher home from other gothic revival mansions. The speaker claims to be familiar with this style home and normally unaffected by any sort of atmosphere. This suggests something decidedly different about this house from other houses.
The something different noted in the experiences of the speaker come to fruitien and reveal the first incidence in literature of a house that is dangerous and deadly in its own right. At the end of this short story before the house is destroyed, the house reveals its true intent. The intent is that the house is of a parasitic nature. This explains why the death of Roderick and Madaline results in the destruction of the house. If the house has no more of the family of Usher’s to survive on it must die, for the power of the house is purely dependent on having the family reside and maintain it. The best description of the house is one that “”. The result, a severely anemic Roderick and a Madeline who was able to come back from the dead, break out of a sealed tomb, and mysteriously find her way straight to the room where Roderick and the speaker had retired to read. Considering the vast amount of Vampire literature that had been written prior to Poe’s writing “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Madeline’s return is most likely a demonstration of her transition from mortal to Vampire. This explains the some days after her supposed death when the narrator describes her in the tomb with “’the mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the face, and that suspiciously lingering smile upon the lip which is so terrible in death”(Kendall 451).