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What is it that scares readers most about Edgar Allan Poe’s literary works? Is it the fact that Poe leaves so much of the horror to develop in the reader's minds? In one of Poe’s most famous works, The Raven, the horror is in the unknown darkness surrounding the narrator, but what each individual reader sees in the darkness is up to them. In The Fall of the House of Usher, which was first published in 1839, Poe again does not tell readers what to fear. Is it the House of Usher itself? Is it the Usher siblings’ strange behaviors? Or is it their diseases? Ultimately, it is the Usher siblings’ disease, which is subtly revealed to be a form of vampirism, that is meant to scare readers the most. Poe delicately uses vampirism in a few of his works to show, “the essentially vampiric nature of human relationships, including love and lust both normal and incestuous, and develops his theme to observe the lesion of vitality inherent in the creative or artistic process. Vampirism, with its terrible energy exchanges and exactions, is ultimately Poe's analogy for a love that persists beyond the grave - an all-consuming, necrophiliac passion that cannot be sated until an undead reconciliation is effected” (Dead Brides). Roderick and Madeline have been each other’s only companions for so long, that neither can imagine their life without the other, so while the setting of the House of Usher may add to the creepiness of the story, the vampiric nature of Roderick and Madeline Usher is Poe’s ultimate scare-tactic for his short story The Fall of the House of Usher.
What necessarily constitutes as a vampire though? Modernized vampires such as the Cullen family from Twilight in 2007 are extremely different from Dracula in 1897. According to James B. Twitchell in his work, The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature, a vampire is a “demonic spirit in a human body who nocturnally attacks the living, a destroyer of others, a preserver of himself” (Twitchell). Twitchell believes that the use of vampirism in stories gave authors a way to ask physiological questions, such as, “How do people interact or how is it that lovers, or artists, or parents, or the insane, or just ordinary people trade energy with those they contact?” (Twitchell). This idea comes across in The Fall of the House of Usher in that, “brother, sister, house, and narrator are all vampiric in a relationship that serves as a mode of discussing energy exchange” (Kiessling). The symptoms of vampirism vary throughout the different cultures of the world, so nailing down one comprehensive definition of a vampire is nearly impossible, but in The Fall of the House of Usher, Poe uses many commonly known and some lesser-known vampiric ideas to show that Roderick and Madeline are vampires without needing to say so outright.
First is the traditional idea of vampirism showcased in the sicknesses of Madeline and Roderick Usher. The way both of the Usher siblings are described seems to lean towards the well-known idea of what a vampire should look like. The two are twins, so only one description is needed, which readers get from the narrator when first meeting with Roderick. The narrator says, “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” (Poe 371). Roderick, and by comparison Madeline, are ghostly white with bright, shining eyes, and wild, untamed hair. The narrator even mentions that he cannot connect Roderick with humanity. He looks dead. There is also the fact that Roderick is averse to light, which is a common trait among vampire myths. Readers learn of this extra fact when the Roderick tells the narrator that 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 odors 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” (Poe 372). While the fear of light is an often used idea for vampire myths, these other oddities are also linked to lesser-known vampire myths. The fact that Roderick can only eat tasteless (“insipid”) foods could be linked to the common trait of vampire’s avoidance of garlic or the fact that they can only eat raw, bloody meats, but there are also other vampire myths that cause vampires to avoid certain foods. For example, in European folklore, vampires are weakened by various herbs (“List”). According to National Geographic, vampirism first emerged from the fear of rabies victims, who would, “display a hypersensitive response to any pronounced olfactory stimulation, which would naturally include the pungent smell of garlic” (Cochran) and explain Roderick’s aversion to flowers as well. Roderick can only wear certain textures and listen to some forms of music because vampires have heightened senses, so some clothing and musical styles would bother his touch and hearing (Pecos).
Roderick’s aversion to light may also explain why the Ushers have not “ventured forth” (Poe 372) from the house for many years, but there is another reason if one looks at the setting of the house. When first arriving at the House of Usher, the narrator describes, “a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling” (Poe 369). For those who may not know, a tarn is, “a small mountain lake or pool” (“Tarn”) and as any vampire enthusiast knows, vampires cannot cross water. This idea was first developed ages ago, as water is believed to be a purifying substance to wash away evil and sin. In ancient Greece, the undead was banished to islands to be surrounded by water in order to stop them from hurting the living (“Oh No!”). There are other setting points that feed into the vampire myth of The Fall of the House of Usher as well. When Roderick and the narrator are burying Madeline, the narrator describes the crypt by saying, “The body having been encoffined, we two alone bore it to its rest. The vault in which we placed it (and which had been so long unopened that our torches, half smothered in its oppressive atmosphere, gave us little opportunity for investigation) was small, damp, and entirely without means of admission of light; lying, at great depth, immediately beneath that portion of the building in which was my own sleeping apartment. It had been used…for some highly combustible substance, as a portion of its floor, and the whole interior of a long archway through which we reached it, were carefully sheathed in copper. The door, of massive iron, had been also, similarly protected. It's immense weight caused an unusually sharp, grating sound, as it moved upon its hinges” (Poe 377). This again shows the fear of light that the vampires face because while Madeline may be dead, Roderick would not want her body to burn, so the crypt lacks any way for light to enter. The fact that the crypt had been unopened for so long is another clue to the Ushers’ vampire curse. Vampires are generally immortal, so they would not have to bury bodies quite as often, but if one (like Madeline) had not been able to feed for long periods of time, they become immobilized and seemingly dead (Werewolf 697). Then there is the fact that Roderick wants to bury her in the crypt under the house instead of in the graveyard. This leads back to the European myth that vampires needed to be buried within the soil of their native lands, or homes (“A Vampire’s”). Madeline cannot be buried outside, as she is not yet actually dead. She still needs her home soil to live. The last bit of the quote about the crypt is harder to connect to the vampire mythos. Copper, which is said to surround the crypt, is used for protection against evil spirits (“Home”), while the iron door is meant to contain the souls of the dead (“Iron”). These are broader ideas of the supernatural than just vampirism, but they still apply because vampires are in many cultures considered dead, evil spirits. The Usher crypt is meant to contain Madeline and to protect Roderick and the narrator from her evil spirit.
Ultimately, this does not work as Madeline breaks free and when Roderick and the narrator see her, “There was blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame” (Poe 381). Madeline was able to break through the wards of the crypt, so that she could, “with a low moaning cry, fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated” (Poe 381). The description of falling onto someone, as Madeline does, conjures images of a vampire attacking its prey before killing it. Madeline’s final act is to kill the brother who tried to kill her. The narrator, upon seeing this, flees from the House of Usher, as the house crumbles down to the ground, or Hell, which is where evil spirits, like vampires, are believed to go when they finally die.
By the time Poe wrote The Fall of the House of Usher in 1839, there would have already been many myths throughout the world of the undead and the start of many books on vampires because “Vampires beckon us out of our merely human existence. On a conceptual level, they break down the barriers between human and nonhuman and between living and dead, so that these basic distinctions lose their meaning. On an emotional level, they break down the distinctions between fear and love. They terrify us and we love them for it!” (Stevenson). Without stating that he was writing a vampire story outright, Poe was able to write a story that both intrigues readers and scares them. Vampires have been a common character in literature for years because people love the excuse to explore their darker side, “which should not be confused with one’s evil side but includes, rather, those aspects of the personality that are suppressed by one’s culture or by one’s personal situation” (Melton, xvii). In the case of Poe, he was looking at the love of family between brother and sister. Madeline and Roderick were too close, as they were each other’s only companions for years. Neither could imagine life without the other and ultimately their fear of losing each other is what kills them both. While one could read The Fall of the House of Usher and see the house as the evil, another could read it and see Roderick as the evil, but the ultimate evil is in Roderick and Madeline’s relationship as immortal vampires who cannot separate from each other.
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