site logo

The Fall Of The House Of Usher

Scary Books: The Haunters & The Haunted

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the

year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been

passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of

country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew

on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it

was--but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of

gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the

feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic,

sentiment with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural

images of the desolate or terrible. 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 everyday life--the hideous dropping off of the veil.

There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart--an unredeemed

dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture

into aught of the sublime. What was it--I paused to think--what was it

that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was

a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies

that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the

unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there _are_

combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus

affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations

beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different

arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the

picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its

capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined

my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in

unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down--but with a shudder

even more thrilling than before--upon the remodelled and inverted images

of the grey sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and

eye-like windows.

Nevertheless, in this mansion of gloom I now proposed to myself a

sojourn of some weeks. Its proprietor, Roderick Usher, had been one of

my boon companions in boyhood; but many years had elapsed since our last

meeting. A letter, however, had lately reached me in a distant part of

the country--a letter from him--which, in its wildly importunate nature,

had admitted of no other than a personal reply. The MS. gave evidence of

nervous agitation. The writer spoke of acute bodily illness--of a mental

disorder which oppressed him--and of an earnest desire to see me, as his

best, and indeed his only personal friend, with a view of attempting, by

the cheerfulness of my society, some alleviation of his malady. It was

the manner in which all this, and much more, was said--it was the

apparent _heart_ that went with his request--which allowed me no room

for hesitation; and I accordingly obeyed forthwith what I still

considered a very singular summons.

Although, as boys, we had been even intimate associates, yet I really

knew little of my friend. His reserve had been always excessive and

habitual. I was aware, however, that his very ancient family had been

noted, time out of mind, for a peculiar sensibility of temperament,

displaying itself, through long ages, in many works of exalted art, and

manifested, of late, in repeated deeds of munificent yet unobtrusive

charity, as well as in a passionate devotion to the intricacies, perhaps

even more than to the orthodox and easily recognisable beauties, of

musical science. I had learned, too, the very remarkable fact, that the

stem of the Usher race, all time-honoured as it was, had put forth, at

no period, any enduring branch; in other words, that the entire family

lay in the direct line of descent, and had always, with very trifling

and very temporary variation, so lain. It was this deficiency, I

considered, while running over in thought the perfect keeping of the

character of the premises with the accredited character of the people,

and while speculating upon the possible influence which the one, in the

long lapse of centuries, might have exercised upon the other--it was

this deficiency, perhaps, of collateral issue, and the consequent

undeviating transmission, from sire to son, of the patrimony with the

name, which had, at length, so identified the two as to merge the

original title of the estate in the quaint and equivocal appellation of

the "House of Usher"--an appellation which seemed to include, in the

minds of the peasantry who used it, both the family and the family


I have said that the sole effect of my somewhat childish

experiment--that of looking down within the tarn--had been to deepen the

first singular impression. There can be no doubt that the consciousness

of the rapid increase of my superstition--for why should I not so term

it?--served mainly to accelerate the increase itself. Such, I have long

known, is the paradoxical law of all sentiments having terror as a

basis. And it might have been for this reason only, that, when I again

uplifted my eyes to the house itself, from its image in the pool, there

grew in my mind a strange fancy--a fancy so ridiculous, indeed, that I

but mention it to show the vivid force of the sensations which oppressed

me. I had so worked upon my imagination as really to believe that about

the whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar to

themselves and their immediate vicinity--an atmosphere which had no

affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the

decayed trees, and the grey wall, and the silent tarn--a pestilent and

mystic vapour, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued.

Shaking off from my spirit what _must_ have been a dream, I scanned more

narrowly the real aspect of the building. Its principal feature seemed

to be that of an excessive antiquity. The discoloration of ages had been

great. Minute _fungi_ overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine

tangled web-work from the eaves. Yet all this was apart from any

extraordinary dilapidation. No portion of the masonry had fallen; and

there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect

adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual

stones. In this there was much that reminded me of the specious totality

of old woodwork which has rotted for long years in some neglected vault,

with no disturbance from the breath of the external air. Beyond this

indication of extensive decay, however, the fabric gave little token of

instability. Perhaps the eye of a scrutinising observer might have

discovered a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof

of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag

direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn.

Noticing these things, I rode over a short causeway to the house. A

servant in waiting took my horse, and I entered the Gothic archway of

the hall. A valet, of stealthy step, thence conducted me, in silence,

through many dark and intricate passages in my progress to the _studio_

of his master. Much that I encountered on the way contributed, I know

not how, to heighten the vague sentiments of which I have already

spoken. While the objects around me--while the 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. On one of the staircases, I met the

physician of the family. His countenance, I thought, wore a mingled

expression of low cunning and perplexity. He accosted me with

trepidation and passed on. The valet now threw open a door and ushered

me into the presence of his master.

The room in which I found myself was very large and lofty. The windows

were long, narrow, and pointed, and at so vast a distance from the black

oaken floor as to be altogether inaccessible from within. Feeble gleams

of encrimsoned light made their way through the trellised panes, and

served to render sufficiently distinct the more prominent objects

around; the eye, however, struggled in vain to reach the remoter angles

of the chamber, or the recesses of the vaulted and fretted ceiling. Dark

draperies hung upon the walls. The general furniture was profuse,

comfortless, antique, and tattered. Many books and musical instruments

lay scattered about, but failed to give any vitality to the scene. I

felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow. An air of stern, deep, and

irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all.

Upon my entrance, Usher arose from a sofa on which he had been lying at

full length, and greeted me with a vivacious warmth which had much in

it, I at first thought, of an overdone cordiality--of the constrained

effort of the _ennuye_ man of the world. A glance, however, at his

countenance, convinced me of his perfect sincerity. We sat down; and for

some moments, while he spoke not, I gazed upon him with a feeling half

of pity, half of awe. Surely, man had never before so terribly altered,

in so brief a period, as had Roderick Usher! It was with difficulty that

I could bring myself to admit the identity of the wan being before me

with the companion of my early boyhood. Yet the character of his face

had been at all times remarkable. A cadaverousness of complexion; an eye

large, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison; lips somewhat thin and

very pallid, but of a surpassingly beautiful curve; a nose of a delicate

Hebrew model, but with a breadth of nostril, unusual in similar

formations; a finely moulded chin, speaking, in its want of prominence,

of a want of moral energy; hair of a more than web-like softness and

tenuity; these features, with an inordinate expansion above the regions

of the temple, made up altogether a countenance not easily to be

forgotten. And now in the mere exaggeration of the prevailing character

of these features, and of the expression they were wont to convey, lay

so much of change that I doubted to whom I spoke. The now ghastly pallor

of the skin, and the now miraculous lustre of the eye, above all things

startled and even awed me. The silken hair, too, had been suffered to

grow all unheeded, and as, in its wild gossamer texture, it floated

rather than fell about the face, I could not, even with effort, connect

its arabesque expression with any idea of simple humanity.

In the manner of my friend I was at once struck with an incoherence--an

inconsistency; and I soon found this to arise from a series of feeble

and futile struggles to overcome an habitual trepidancy--an excessive

nervous agitation. For something of this nature I had indeed been

prepared, no less by his letter, than by reminiscences of certain boyish

traits, and by conclusions deduced from his peculiar physical

conformation and temperament. His action was alternately vivacious and

sullen. His voice varied rapidly from a tremulous indecision (when the

animal spirits seemed utterly in abeyance) to that species of energetic

concision--that abrupt, weighty, unhurried, and hollow-sounding

enunciation--that leaden, self-balanced and perfectly modulated guttural

utterance, which may be observed in the lost drunkard, or the

irreclaimable eater of opium, during the periods of his most intense


It was thus that he spoke of the object of my visit, of his earnest

desire to see me, and of the solace he expected me to afford him. He

entered, at some length, into what he conceived to be the nature of his

malady. It was, he said, a constitutional and a family evil, and one for

which he despaired to find a remedy--a mere nervous affection, he

immediately added, which would undoubtedly soon pass on. It displayed

itself in a host of unnatural sensations. Some of these, as he detailed

them, interested and bewildered me; although, perhaps, the terms, and

the general manner of the narration had their weight. He suffered much

from a morbid acuteness of the senses; the most insipid food was alone

endurable; he could wear only garments of certain texture; the odours 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.

To an anomalous species of terror I found him a bounden slave. "I shall

perish," said he, "I _must_ perish in this deplorable folly. Thus, thus,

and not otherwise, shall I be lost. I dread the events of the future,

not in themselves, but in their results. I shudder at the thought of

any, even the most trivial, incident, which may operate upon this

intolerable agitation of soul. I have, indeed, no abhorrence of danger,

except in its absolute effect--in terror. In this unnerved--in this

pitiable condition--I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive

when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the

grim phantasm, FEAR."

I learned, moreover, at intervals, and through broken and equivocal

hints, another singular feature of his mental condition. He was

enchained by certain superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling

which he tenanted, and whence, for many years, he had never ventured

forth--in regard to an influence whose supposititious force was conveyed

in terms too shadowy here to be re-stated--an influence which some

peculiarities in the mere form and substance of his family mansion, had,

by dint of long sufferance, he said, obtained over his spirit--an effect

which the _physique_ of the grey walls and turrets, and of the dim tarn

into which they all looked down, had, at length, brought about upon the

_morale_ of his existence.

He admitted, however, although with hesitation, that much of the

peculiar gloom which thus afflicted him could be traced to a more

natural and far more palpable origin--to the severe and long-continued

illness--indeed to the evidently approaching dissolution--of a tenderly

beloved sister--his sole companion for long years--his last and only

relative on earth. "Her decease," he said, with a bitterness which I can

never forget, "would leave him (him the hopeless and the frail) the last

of the ancient race of the Ushers." While he spoke, the Lady Madeline

(for so was she called) passed slowly through a remote portion of the

apartment, and, without having noticed my presence, disappeared. I

regarded her with an utter astonishment not unmingled with dread--and

yet I found it impossible to account for such feelings. A sensation of

stupor oppressed me, as my eyes followed her retreating steps. When a

door, at length, closed upon her, my glance sought instinctively and

eagerly the countenance of the brother--but he had buried his face in

his hands, and I could only perceive that a far more than ordinary

wanness had overspread the emaciated fingers through which trickled many

passionate tears.

The disease of the Lady Madeline had long baffled the skill of her

physicians. A settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person, and

frequent although transient affections of a partially cataleptical

character, were the unusual diagnosis. Hitherto she had steadily borne

up against the pressure of her malady, and had not betaken herself

finally to bed; but, on the closing in of the evening of my arrival at

the house, she succumbed (as her brother told me at night with

inexpressible agitation) to the prostrating power of the destroyer; and

I learned that the glimpse I had obtained of her person would thus

probably be the last I should obtain--that the lady, at least while

living, would be seen by me no more.

For several days ensuing, her name was unmentioned by either Usher or

myself: and during this period I was busied in earnest endeavours to

alleviate the melancholy of my friend. We painted and read together; or

I listened, as if in a dream, to the wild improvisations of his speaking

guitar. And thus, as a closer and still closer intimacy admitted me more

unreservedly into the recesses of his spirit, the more bitterly did I

perceive the futility of all attempt at cheering a mind from which

darkness, as if an inherent positive quality, poured forth upon all

objects of the moral and physical universe, in one unceasing radiation

of gloom.

I shall ever bear about me a memory of the many solemn hours I thus

spent alone with the master of the House of Usher. Yet I should fail in

any attempt to convey an idea of the exact character of the studies, or

of the occupations, in which he involved me, or led me the way. An

excited and highly distempered ideality threw a sulphureous lustre over

all. His long improvised dirges will ring for ever in my ears. Among

other things, I hold painfully in mind a certain singular perversion and

amplification of the wild air of the last waltz of Von Weber. From the

paintings over which his elaborate fancy brooded and which grew, touch

by touch, into vagueness at which I shuddered the more thrillingly,

because I shuddered knowing not why;--from these paintings (vivid as

their images now are before me) I would in vain endeavour to educe more

than a small portion which should lie within the compass of merely

written words. By the utter simplicity, by the nakedness of his designs,

he arrested and overawed attention. If ever mortal painted an idea, that

mortal was Roderick Usher. For me at least--in the circumstances then

surrounding me--there arose out of the pure abstractions which the

hypochondriac contrived to throw upon his canvas, an intensity of

intolerable awe, no shadow of which felt I ever yet in the contemplation

of the certainly glowing yet too concrete reveries of Fuseli.

One of the phantasmagoric conceptions of my friend, partaking not so

rigidly of the spirit of abstraction, may be shadowed forth, although

feebly, in words. A small picture presented the interior of an immensely

long and rectangular vault or tunnel, with low walls, smooth, white, and

without interruption or device. Certain accessory points of the design

served well to convey the idea that this excavation lay at an exceeding

depth below the surface of the earth. No outlet was observed in any

portion of its vast extent, and no torch, or other artificial source of

light, was discernible; yet a flood of intense rays rolled throughout,

and bathed the whole in a ghastly and inappropriate splendour.

I have just spoken of that morbid condition of the auditory nerve which

rendered all music intolerable to the sufferer, with the exception of

certain effects of stringed instruments. It was, perhaps, the narrow

limits to which he thus confined himself upon the guitar, which gave

birth, in great measure, to the fantastic character of his performances.

But the fervid _facility_ of his _impromptus_ could not be so accounted

for. They must have been, and were, in the notes, as well as in the

words of his wild fantasias (for he not unfrequently accompanied himself

with rhymed verbal improvisations), the result of that intense mental

collectedness and concentration to which I have previously alluded as

observable only in particular moments of the highest artificial

excitement. The words of one of these rhapsodies I have easily

remembered. I was, perhaps, the more forcibly impressed with it, as he

gave it, because, in the under or mystic current of its meaning, I

fancied that I perceived, and for the first time, a full consciousness

on the part of Usher, of the tottering of his lofty reason upon her

throne. The verses, which were entitled "The Haunted Palace," ran very

nearly, if not accurately, thus:


In the greenest of our valleys,

By good angels tenanted

Once a fair and stately palace--

Radiant palace--reared its head.

In the monarch Thought's dominion--

It stood there!

Never seraph spread a pinion

Over fabric half so fair.