"The Fall of the House of Usher" is a short story by the American horror writer Edgar Allan Poe. It was first published in September 1839 in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine. It was published again in a slightly modified form in Poe's 1840 anthology Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. The story includes the poem "The Haunted Palace" which Poe had previously had published separately in the April 1839 edition of the Baltimore Museum magazine.
The story takes place in an unnamed country, although references to peasants, feudalism and a centuries old house imply that it is not set in the United States. Roderick Usher and his sister Madeline are the only two surviving members of the aristocratic Usher family. For many years, they have lived together in the ancient mansion which is their ancestral family home. Madeline Usher has been ill for a long time and is not expected to live much longer. Partly due to his sister's illness and partly, he believes, due to the negative influence of the old mansion in which he lives, Roderick Usher has fallen into a deep melancholy. To help recover his spirits, he summons his old friend, the story's unnamed narrator, to come to visit him. Madeline Usher appears to die. Roderick has her body placed in a coffin and taken to a vault beneath the house. However, in the story's climax, it is revealed that Madeline was not yet dead when she was placed in the casket. The vengeful Madeline manages to escape from her coffin and the vault and goes in search of the brother responsible for her premature burial.
There have been numerous adaptations of the story to other media, the best known of which remains the 1960 film House of Usher, directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price.
The term "House of Usher" is commonly used to refer both to the Usher family and the ancient mansion which is their ancestral home. The Ushers have long been famed for their artistic skills, especially in music. Although they are an old family, the Ushers have never been a very large one and are now reduced to only two surviving members, Roderick Usher and his twin sister Madeline.
The story's unnamed narrator receives a letter from his childhood friend Roderick Usher. In his letter, Roderick explains that he is both physically ill and mentally troubled. He asks the narrator to visit him and help him recover his health. As the narrator approaches the Ushers' ancestral home, he begins to feel a deep sense of unease. He is troubled by the stagnant lake and dead trees that surround the house and by the appearance of the house itself. The house appears to be solid enough but its exterior is completely covered in fungus. A barely visible crack runs all the way down the front of the building.
As a result of his illness, Roderick Usher has changed so much since the narrator last saw him that he barely recognizes him. Roderick tells the narrator that a symptom of his illness is a heightening of his five senses. A change in his sense of taste means that he can only bear to eat the blandest of foods. A change in his sense of touch means that all but a few textiles feel uncomfortable next to his skin. His eyes have become extremely sensitive to light. He cannot stand the smell of flowers. His hearing has become heightened. Most music sounds awful to him. He can only stand to hear the guitar and a few other stringed instruments.
According to Roderick, his illness is partly a result of the negative influence of the house which he has not left for many years. Roderick feels that the house is alive and is constantly watching him. Roderick's ill humor is also partly due to his twin sister Madeline's long illness. Madeline is not expected to live much longer. On the evening that the narrator arrives, she takes to her bed and does not leave it. The narrator only glimpses her briefly on the day that he arrives and she does not interact with him at all.
The narrator attempts to help Roderick recover his spirits, together they read, paint and play music. However, Roderick remains thoroughly miserable. During this time, he composes a song called "The Haunted Palace" which tells of a good king who becomes corrupted and whose beautiful castle falls into ruins.
Madeline Usher dies. Her funeral is due to take place two weeks later. In the meantime, her body is placed in a coffin and taken to a vault below the house, directly underneath the narrator's bedroom. After his twin sister's death, Roderick's descent into madness appears to be complete. The narrator also begins to feel that the old house is having a negative effect on him too.
On a stormy night a week after Madeline's death, the narrator is unable to sleep and finally decides to get up and get dressed. Roderick enters the narrator's bedroom in an agitated state. The narrator attempts to calm him down by reading him a tale of chivalry, similar to those from Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. The tale tells of a knight called Ethelred who uses his mace to break down a wooden door. He finds a dragon behind it with a notice which says that whosoever kills the monster will become the rightful owner of a legendary shield. Ethelred uses his mace to strike off the dragon's head, causing it to give out a terrible scream. Ethelred drops the shield on a floor made of silver, causing a loud clang. As the narrator reads aloud, he feels that he can hear the distant sounds of a wooden door being broken down, a terrible scream and a metallic clang.
Roderick admits that he can hear the noises too. They are the sounds of Madeline escaping from her coffin and the vault. He reminds the narrator that his hearing has become heightened. He has known for days that Madeline was buried alive because he could hear her moving inside her coffin. He is certain that Madeline will come to take revenge on him for burying her before she was dead. He says that he can hear her approaching footsteps and is certain that she will soon break through the bedroom's doors. Sure enough, Madeline breaks through the doors. She attacks and kills Roderick but dies while she does so.
Although the storm is still raging outside, the narrator runs away from the house. He looks back when he suddenly becomes aware of some light. It is the light of the moon shining through the crack in the house which had been barely visible before. The crack widens until the entire moon is visible through it. The whole house collapses and falls into the lake.
Between 1928 and 2012, eighteen different film and television adaptations of "The Fall of the House of Usher" were produced in France, the United States, the United Kingdom, Czechoslovakia, Spain and Russia.
The best known film adaptation remains the 1960 American movie House of Usher, also released as The Fall of the House of Usher and The Mysterious House of Usher, directed by Roger Corman. It was the first of eight films which Corman directed that were inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe. It stars Mark Damon as Philip Winthrop (roughly equivalent to the unnamed narrator from Poe's story), Harry Ellerbe as the Usher's servant Bristol, Myrna Fahey as Madeline Usher and Vincent Price as Roderick Usher. Unlike in the story, it is explicitly stated in the film that the action takes place in the United States, the Ushers' centuries old home having been brought over from Britain. A love story, which is completely absent from Poe's original tale, is an important element in the movie. When Philip Winthrop travels from Boston to the remote part of New England where the Ushers live, he does so not to visit Roderick Usher but to see Madeline. He and Madeline had become engaged in Boston before Madeline suddenly took ill and returned home. Roderick is deeply troubled by the possibility of Madeline marrying and having children because the Ushers have a history of madness and cruelty. Madeline, who has a history of falling into death-like states, is deliberately buried alive by Roderick in an attempt to wipe out the evil Usher line. When she emerges from her coffin, she has gone mad and attacks both Roderick and her fiancé.
The French composer Claude Debussy began work on an opera based on "The Fall of the House of Usher" in 1908, writing both the music and the libretto. However, it remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1918. An opera based on "The Fall of the House of Usher" with music by Philip Glass and libretto by Arthur Yorinks was first performed in 1987. Another opera based on the story, with music by Peter Hammill and libretto by Chris Judge Smith was first performed in 1991. In common with Roger Corman's 1960 film, the opera includes a romantic relationship between Madeline Usher and the narrator character, who is given the name Montresor. The house itself has a singing role in the opera, being performed by the same artist who sings the part of Roderick.
A stage musical based on "The Fall of the House of Usher", written by Sarah Hirsch and Molly Fox, both students at Yale University at the time of its composition, won the Best Musical award at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2008.
- Video of the 1928 silent movie The Fall of the House of Usher, now in the public domain
- Other Poe stories which deal with being buried alive:
- Text of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" on Wikisource.
- Public domain audiobooks of "The Fall of the House of Usher" Part 1 and Part 2 on YouTube.
- "The Fall of the House of Usher" on the SparkNotes website.