The Fall of the House of Usher, by Edgar Allan Poe: #BookReview.


It’s dangerous to review a much-loved and respected classic; even more so for an author. So I face this review with some trepidation.

The story is, of course, of its time; a period when readers had fewer distractions, were happy to read wordy stories, and were educated enough to understand the subtleties of language.

I love the way that Poe, here, breaks two supposedly essential rules of writing. He starts the book with a comment about the weather; supposedly a real no-no. And his opening sentence, which should, apparently, be short and to the point, is sixty words long and meandering. So much for rules applied to writing.

I don’t need to summarise the story; everyone must know it either from reading or seeing one of the many film/TV adaptations.

We start with five very long paragraphs detailing the appearance of the house and its effect on the narrator. This is before we’ve entered the building. Two and a half pages of a twelve-page story spent on architecture and scene setting? And, yet, he gets away with it. There’s a compelling quality to the writing that drives the reader on. I seriously doubt a modern writer could get away with such technique.

When we enter the house, we also enter the story proper. There are few characters: the main victim is characterised but we never meet her, until she’s a corpse. But we understand some of her life, her emotional issues.

The chief protagonist is a complex character who displays archetypal qualities of the interbred nobility: a man little short of insane and obsessed by internal familial matters at the expense of all else in life.

Story builds through detail and mysterious references with very little actually spelt out for the reader: much is left to the imagination, as is best in the horror genre. The mind is, after all, a magnificent device for conjuring dread and terror. It’s a quality understood by every leader, every newspaper editor, every successful writer of dark fiction.

The denouement is swift and black and strangely truncated. But, in reality, what more could be said? We, the reader, have been made to imagine the events that freed the poor victim from her premature incarceration; none of that escape is explained, except by reference to various inexplicable sounds that reach the ears of the narrator and the tortured protagonist.

A lesson in the craft of the horror story, but one which can be applied only with much amendment if a writer hopes to reach a modern audience and have his story read to the end.