Monday, December 1, 2008

A Possible Source for "The Fall of the House of Usher"

For me, no image better captures the weirdness and perversity of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" than Harry Clarke's interpretation of Madeline Usher's "rending of her coffin." With this story, Poe took the conventions of the gothic narrative in vogue during previous decades and compressed them into this tight story of live burial, doomed twins, and a decaying family mansion. The story opens with one of the most perfectly constructed sentences in dark literature:

"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."

Recently, I came across what might be a source of inspiration for this line, a 1797 gothic novel by Mrs. Carver, THE HORRORS OF OAKENDALE ABBEY. This novel contains the kind of gothic conventions Poe would perfect, and it also begins with a line that in some ways echoes Poe's own beginning:

"In the gloomy month of November, when the mountains of Cumberland were almost concealed by the heavy black clouds which hung below their tops, and a thick dripping rain scarcely left the few scattered cottages of Oakendale discernable, the peasants were all retired to their habitations; and through this thick atmosphere the stately ruins of the antient (sic) Abbey appeared like a black mass of immense length, and could only be distinguished as a building, by the glimmering twinkling of the small panes of glass from some of the many windows which were dispersed without uniformity, in this gloomy structure."

Carver's opening mirrors Poe's both in structure (clunky as hers may be, she even has a similarly placed semicolon), as well as effect (the pervading sense of gloom.) According to Curt Herr's introduction to the recent Zittaw Press edition, Carver's work was received well on both sides of the Atlantic, so it doesn't seem outside the realm of possibility that Poe would have come in contact with THE HORRORS OF OAKENDALE ABBEY.


Tenebrous Kate said...

Very interesting stuff! I like the idea of authors and artists being inspired by other works and finessing established ideas in their signature style.

Those Poe illustrations by Harry Clarke are gorgeous and chilling--I'll never get tired of looking at them!

The Headless Werewolf said...

I'm a freak for the Clarke stuff, too, especially the Madeline picture. I love the off-kilter angle and those eyes!

Arbogast said...

I love Madeline's unshaven pits. I know, I'm a freak. But good investigatory work!

CRwM said...

Poe's image is caught up in a sort of Romantic doomed mad loner artist paradigm that it is refreshing to see somebody uncover the writer doing the real, thoughtful, and careful work of writing. Thanks for this.

The Headless Werewolf said...

For some reason, those hairy pits remind me of Richard Corben's comic book adaptation of the story, where Madeline is frequently featured nude but with noticeably masculine facial features. I'll probably post something later about that.

On the lone artist thing: a few years ago, David Reynolds wrote a terrific book called BENEATH THE AMERICAN RENAISSANCE, where he argued that Poe (along with Hawthorne, Melville, and others) were greatly influenced the popular culture of their time. It's a good read, if a bit academic.

whoissecretdubai said...
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blackwalnut2001 said...

Thank you. Harry Clarke has always been my favorite Poe illustrator, just captures the twisted nature of the work so well. I think Poe would have approved of Harry's visions... Good detective work on the possible source material too. All writing is derivative; great to see there are still people who trouble to put the puzzles together... Thanks again.

Don Shelton said...

I note your reference to "The Horrors of Oakendale Abbey". You may be interested to read my paper revealing Sir Anthony Carlisle as the author of that book, who wrote under the name Mrs Carver. See

You may also be interested to note that in "The Real Mr Frankenstein" I have demonstrated multiple reasons for regarding Carlisle as the model for Victor Frankenstein, see

I discuss there common themes between Oakendale Abbey and Holcroft's "Adventures of Hugh Trevor" showing that Mary Shelley drew on both books in writing "Frankenstein".