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“The Fall of the House of Usher”

Before I start, what an exciting win by the Dodgers over the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Wildcard game Wednesday night. I do not like the concept of sports “Wild Card” teams, but that is a topic I will not subject you to, at least as long as the Dodgers, who won 106 games in the regular season, did not get beaten by a Cardinals team which won 90 games, and thus get eliminated from the playoffs.

It was a very exciting game. My mother and my grandmother were from St. Louis, so while I was always a Dodgers fan, I had a bit of fondness for the Cardinals; and I think that the Dodgers and Cardinals have the best uniforms in baseball. Anyway, now the Dodgers must play the San Francisco Giants in a best of five series. I think that the Giants are better, with the Dodgers’ best power hitter having been injured in the last game of the season, but at least the Dodgers have a chance.

Now, on to the actual topic. I think that “The Fall of the House of Usher” is Edgar Allan Poe’s greatest short story, out of so many superb ones. The atmosphere is unparalleled, and the tale itself is mysterious and opaque. There may be more levels to the story than it would seem on a first reading, as they are never completely spelled out. From the very first paragraph, the tale has the nature of a strange dream which cannot be dispelled.

It starts in this way: “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, in view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was–but with the first glimpse of evening, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit…”

From the very first paragraph, a sense of doom, ominousness and dread suffuses the story. There are only three major characters: the unnamed narrator, his former boyhood friend Roderick Usher, who has written to him after not having seen him for years, and Roderick’s sister Madeline, who never speaks a word in the story, but is a significant and haunting presence.

It is a story told by the narrator, who I think we are to perceive as a reliable witness to the events he describes. Yet he mentions opium dreams on more than one occasion, so there is always this question, as with any Poe story, as to how much is real, and how much is imagined . What he describes is the falling apart of all aspects of the House of Usher: the physical nature of the two siblings, their mental state, and then the house itself.

There is a memorable poem which Usher apparently wrote, and which he reads to the narrator, “The Haunted Palace” It is in the nature of a medieval Conceit, where the house itself is the actual image and reflection of the state of its owner. It is the major theme of the story, though there are other intimations which are even more disturbing than that basic metaphor; and the reader might choose to focus on any one of them, or not; they are never spelled out.

One may or may not like this kind of story; I always did. What makes a horror story unforgettable is that it is usually self-contained; its relative brevity offers a glimpse into a strange and potentially frightening world. What it is not, is something that goes along at length. Now, there are of course great horror novels, though not too many; the best horror is in short fiction, I think. (If you are in the mood for a horror novel, read “The Monk” by Matthew Lewis, or “Ghost Story” by Peter Straub).

I am writing about this, because I just read that there is going to be a TV series “adapted” from “The Fall of the House of Usher.” It is being done by Mike Flanagan, whom I have never heard of, but who apparently has a reputation in this genre, with other adaptations he has done. This will have eight episodes, all written by Flanagan, who directs four of them. He says, “I’m so excited about this series. It’s like nothing else we have ever done.” The “we” apparently refers to his frequent collaborator Michael Finognan, who will direct the other four episodes.

Now if this itself were a horror story, I would think that Flanagan and Finognan were the same person, or perhaps tulpas, but I think that they are real people. And when I first saw this headline, I had an immediate thought of, “My favorite Poe story!,” and then immediately, “But there is no way this is going to be any good.”

I have no idea of the creative and literary abilities of Flanagan. Most script writers these days are not as good as the legends of the past, though of course that is just my opinion. But even irrespective of that, you cannot take a short story by the greatest short story horror writer ever (though Marjorie Bowen is close!), and make it into eight hour-long episodes. It would be like trying to make a long poem out of a sonnet, it belies the concept.

Poe’s story is meant to be the length it is, because he tells all that he wants to tell. One can extrapolate and surmise about some of it, but Poe does not tell us, nor may he want to. It can be exciting to explore deeper layers, but the writer usually wants to leave us with that ambiguity. If it is spelled out, the work loses much of its power.

There was a TV series a few years ago based on Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” I watched the first one or two episodes, but it got bogged down, as such things will do, because it is not something that should be stretched out. TV shows of course are usually meant to be stretched out. Some are meant to be open-ended, the longer they can draw an acceptable audience size, the better the producers like it, and the longer it will go. Some shows are circumscribed by length from the beginning, and those are usually the better ones, I think, because they are not artificially stretched out.

The only way that “The Fall of the House of Usher” can be stretched into eight hours, is for the writers to add all sorts of things that are not in the story. For example, there is no violence, but I would bet that there will be some in this one. There are only three characters in the story (except for the mention of servants), and only two of them, the narrator and Roderick Usher, speak. But you know that there will be new characters in this so-called adaptation, and they will of course say and do things, and turn the story into something else. It might be interesting, it might be ridiculous, but it will only partially be Poe’s story.

I get bothered by such things more than many. I know that it is just a show; and there are about 500 shows, it seems, from TV, to streaming services, so why should it matter? Well, I am a purist when it comes to great literature. And “Usher” is great, in that it may be one of the most atmospheric works of short fiction ever written.

It is somewhat over the top, perhaps, but it draws you in to what is almost a dream world, so much so that one could almost wonder if the narrator has imagined it all, or is mentally unbalanced, as many of Poe’s short story narrators are. But I think he is sane, and he is just telling a haunting story. That is Poe’s story, so it should not be very much tampered with. My feeling is that if someone has a great idea for a story, then they should write that, not purloin someone else’s story and gain the audience which is drawn to the familiar name.

So I will not watch it; and if I hear that it is really great, I might change my mind, but I would be amazed if it is, because it is not Poe, it is these two writers who are writing it, using the original story only as a launching point for whatever they feel like putting in it. I am stubborn about this kind of thing.

I would not watch Steven Moffatt’s stories about Sherlock Holmes, where he “wittily” changed the titles (“A Study in Scarlet” became “A Study in Pink”), and then created his own Holmes and Watson characters. Holmes a self-described sociopath? Nonsense! And I have read all the stories. Nor would I see the other show with Holmes in New York, and Dr. Watson being a woman. Try this kind of thing with one of Jane Austen’s stories, and those who love her novels would be outraged! But they keep doing it with Holmes.

The famed “B movie” director Roger Corman actually made some entertaining films of some of Poe’s stories. They were deliberately overplayed, usually with Vincent Price doing his unique mix of urbanity and malevolence, in stories which always had some humor in them, too. That was not Poe, he never had humor in his stories, but no one pretended that these were the actual stories, though they were filmed well, with fantastic settings filled with tapestries and flowing gowns. I must admit that I am curious as to what Flanagan and Finognan have in mind–but not curious enough to actually watch, and get upset at the liberties they are taking with the story. And of course there will be many who think that this version is actually Poe’s story, which is just not right.

Even so, this cannot be as upsetting to me as when I learned that a playwright named Bryony Lavery was adapting “Treasure Island” for the stage, with Jim Hawkins being a young woman. They actually filmed this for movie theatres, and I vigorously boycotted it by not going. An outrage! “Treasure Island” is probably the greatest adventure novel ever written. Leave my favorite stories alone!