Southern Gothic Foundations: ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’

July is an ode to sunshine in the Gothic, it is a trip down south to the sweltering southern states of America, and to the effect of geography on horror.

Under a Southern Spell, this month I am reading four short stories from the Southern Gothic canon, and invite you all to read along with me. Each Friday I will discuss the story both here and on Instagram, and announce what’s coming next. I have been sure to pick texts with free PDFs available to keep things accessible, and will share those along with the title announcement a week in advance of spoilery discussions.

If there’s interest in a group chat, as some of us have enjoyed before, I’ll happily set one up each week on Instagram, allowing a full week to leisurely read and discuss. Low pressure and all welcome, as always…

Whilst it would seem logical to begin this post with a definition of the Southern Gothic, it’s not as simple as that… Nothing ever is in the [capitalised or not?] gothic [genre… or mode?]! The evolution of the Southern Gothic is something I’ll be exploring throughout the month, and the four short stories will serve as anchors, introducing themes, styles, and indicators of the sub-genre.

To give you a sense of the importance of place within the Southern Gothic, and a little something to hold onto, the following quote may be useful:

“The American Gothic is most recognisable as a regional form. Identified with gothic doom and gloom, the American South serves as the nation’s ‘other’, becoming the repository for everything from which the nation wishes to dissociate itself. The benighted South is able to support the irrational impulses of the gothic that the nation as a whole, born of Enlightenment ideals, cannot.”
– Teresa Goddu

As a distinctly (US) American classification of the gothic, we begin under the care of Southern-born Great American Gothic, Edgar Allan Poe (click for his Brief and Tragic Bio) with The Fall of the House of Usher.
Read: Original Text
Read: Simplified Text

Without further ado, let us enter the house, and witness its fall …

© Genreally Gothic

First published in 1839, Poe captures the musicality of melancholy from the first alliterative line of The Fall of the House of Usher. We know that the short story is gothic because it is Poe’s, but he gives us clues nonetheless.

“Peculiar sounds,”
“horror,”
“terror,”
“fear,” and
“unnatural sensations”
are all apparent in a single glance. At its centre is a “mansion of gloom” with a “Gothic archway” and “a family evil”. All are familiar tropes of the gothic mode, made so, in part, by his very hand. Leaving them there, this is where we fall under the Southern Spell.

There is an argument for a text to be Southern Gothic based on setting alone. Do you agree? There is another stronger argument, I believe, for the presence of particular aspects, related undeniably to place, but that are more than simply ‘setting’; uniquely southern themes, for example.

Decline is a major theme in the short prose; the house exposes “a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones.”
These “crumbling […] individual stones” are:
mental well-being | the individual
the Usher bloodline | the familial
the South | the collective.

The house, then, is metaphor – the roof under which these themes of decline are explored. Its multiplicity allows for it to be read simultaneously as
sanity,
social standing,
southern prosperity –
but does each not fall under the weight of history?

“Its principal feature seemed to be that of an excessive antiquity. The discolouration of ages had been great.”

– Description of the house, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher‘, Edgar Allan Poe

This focus – the role of history – is of particular interest to me this month as I explore the Southern Gothic (with its early American Gothic roots in New England); but I’m interested to know what you think.
What does the house symbolise to you?
What is the implication of the end of the “ancient race of Ushers”?
Do you identify any other major themes or significant subjects explored through metaphor and fiction?
Where in the Gothic does The Fall of the House of Usher sit; is it immediately Southern Gothic to you?
Share any thoughts you may have in the comments below or on Instagram… my very foundations are crumbling in anticipation!

~

WEEK 2: Our next Southern Spell Short Story Readalong text is Drenched in Light by Zora Neale Hurston.
Read it here: PDF
Continuing on a historical path, I will be reading and discussing the role of race and regionalism, next Friday the 17th of July. Be sure to ‘Hex Yourself’ (or follow the blog) to be notified when the discussion post is live.

Continue reading with Edgar Allan Poe: A Brief & Tragic Biography,
Dissecting ‘The Tell Tale Heart’ by Edgar Allan Poe, and
Gustave Doré’s Illustrated Poe.

If you have enjoyed this discussion, please consider making a small contribution to help with the upkeep of this blog and save it from falling into an Usher-like state of disrepair.

One thought on “Southern Gothic Foundations: ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’

  1. I really loved this introduction, and great choice of text to kick things off. As I was reading, your mention of “place” and the importance of the house set off a lightbulb in my head and I was suddenly reminded of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” That quote, too — “a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones…” — sums up Streetcar really well, with the family unit of Stanley and Stella slotting together idealistically whilst Blanche is left the “individual stone” in a “crumbling” state of disrepair. When we studied it I hadn’t considered it particularly gothic at all, but it suddenly occurred to me that there are indeed similarities and interesting comparisons to be made. Great stuff, love it! 🖤

    Like

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