Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Poe - actually pretty good - "The Fall of the House of Usher"

Poe was first able to match his voice and subject in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by parodying real accounts of survival and adventure. His next insight, or accidental discovery, was that it was the nature of the subject that really mattered – it was the horrifying, unbelievable story that was well matched to his style.

“The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) is where this discovery takes place, the earliest of his 8 or 9 most famous stories. Our nervous, stiff narrator visits his nervous, hysterical childhood friend, Roderick Usher, at his isolated Scottish mansion. Terrible things are suggested, terrible things occur. The narrator escapes to tell us about them. That’s the story, really. Poe’s stories have been so thoroughly ransacked by movies and horror stories that a modern reader may not find the results so shocking. I think it’s still effective, despite that, and sometimes despite Poe.

Here’s another example of Poe at his worst:

“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.”

This is a long way from what I consider good writing, but there is some psychological effectiveness. Who would talk about being frightened in this way? What horrible trauma must this man have suffered to tell the story like this? What is he repressing?

In the end, the narrator turns to watch the mansion collapse into the lake. Here the action blends with the psychological state of the narrator:

“While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened – there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind – the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight – my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder – there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters – and the deep and dark tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the ‘House of Usher.’”

Some of this is ridiculous, too ("orb of the satellite"="moon"). But a lot of it is quite good, tense and effective (“deep and dark”, “sullenly and silently”). Whatever has destroyed the House of Usher has also damaged the mind of the narrator.

Why was it so difficult for Poe to find the right subject for his style? Why was his voice so fixed? Most – all? – great writers face the same problem, although many of them seem to work out the voice/subject synthesis simultaneously. The subject shapes the style, and vice versa, and by the time the reader sees the book the fit already seems natural, even obvious. With Poe’s history of publication, we can see the style develop in the service of nonsense and trivia, and then, surprisingly, find a home.

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