Contents
  Notes &
Permissions
  Preface & Acknowledg-
ments
1:
Introduction
2: Horror in Literature and the Literature of Horror
3: The Marvelous Horror Thriller
4:  The Fantastic/Uncanny Horror Thriller
5: The Aesthetics of the Horror Thriller: Stoker's Dracula
6: The Pure Fantastic Tale of Terror
7:  Anticlosure: Poe's "Ligeia"
8: The Entrapped Critic:
Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher"
9: The Master's Trap:
James's The Turn of the Screw 
10: Escape: An Aesthetics of Terror Fantasy
11: Terror and the Sublime
Sources
Index

 
Chapter Eight
The Entrapped Critic:
Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher"
 

 

     In this chapter we explore a second example of terror fantasy and look at the rich variety of critical response to "The Fall of the House of Usher" as a means of examining how real readers attempt to deal with the unique effects of a terror fantasy. "Ligeia" terrifies the real reader by entrapping him in the role of implied reader and splitting that reader. That tale refuses the closure it has made the implied reader desire, and so adds to the tension generated by the pure fantastic, the hesitation between a natural and a supernatural explanation of unusual events. The implied reader splits between two readings and eventually enters a third mode of response, a suspension between the readings. Because the tale heightens rather than resolves this split, the reading must be ended by the reader alone, without the assistance that most fictions provide. The discussion of "Ligeia" was intended, in part, to describe this situation. The following consideration of "The Fall of the House of Usher" starts with how Poe creates the same situation with this tale. Then, we will look at critical responses to the tale to see how real readers have attempted to end their readings. What routes of escape are available once one is entrapped within the role of reading a terror fantasy?
 

I

     The opening paragraph of "The Fall of the House of Usher" introduces the problem of the fantastic in a subdued and subtle way. The narrator recounts an experience for which he cannot account by rational means, but for which he insists there is a natural explanation. Opposed to his insistence is the repetition of the experience. He looks at the House of Usher, and "a sense of insufferable gloom" pervades his spirit. He distinguishes this feeling from his experience of the sublime, which contains in its terror some poetic sentiment. Unable to deal with or account for his response, he is forced "to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth" (88). To prove to himself that simple combinations of natural objects can influence feelings, he experiments by changing his point of view. But the reflection of the house in the tarn produces "a shudder even more thrilling than before" (88). When he returns to his perusal of the house after explaining the reasons for his visit, this conflict between the reports of his senses and his interpretations of these reports persists. As he gazes at the reflection his sense of an occult presence grows, but there is a natural law to account for that, too. Being conscious that one is giving way to superstition accelerates the speed at which one gives way. This is "the paradoxical law of all sentiments having terror as a basis" (89). When he looks again at the house and sees hanging over it -- and over the whole area -- a peculiar atmosphere that is actually palpable as an odorous vapor, he characterizes this apparent perception as "a ridiculous fancy" that has grown in his mind.

     The narrator has entered a part of the world that pointedly contradicts his previous experience, which had taught him that the mind interacts with and, on the whole, dominates the world. While he acknowledges that on occasion part of the world can give shape to the mind, he also believes, first, that the world is plural in its essense and, therefore, cannot radiate gloom exclusively and, second, that by changing his point of view, by actively using his mind, he can exercise a sort of freedom of vision. Like Emily in The Mysteries of Udolpho, he expects to be able to turn from the terror of a threatening object to the sublime vista of some surrounding landscape and, thereby, to transcend the immediate terror. But the landscape in which he finds himself seems to have an opposing force, a sentient will that imposes itself upon him. There is no plurality in the reflected image of the house, but rather an increased intensity of monochromatic gloom. If the world, properly seen, radiates only gloom, then it becomes irrelevant that one has the power to vary the direction of his gaze. One is entrapped.

     The opening of this tale, then, sets up an opposition between the narrator's experience of a force that may be supernatural and his insistent interpretation of this experience as explainable according to obscure psychological laws or else illusory, the mere product of "nerves." He is made to hesitate between the natural and the supernatural despite his displayed preference for the natural. The implied reader can only enter into this dilemma. Parallel to this conflict is a subtle opposition that will grow increasingly important as the story progresses.

     Like "Ligeia" and unlike both At the Mountains of Madness and "The Black Cat," "The Fall of the House of Usher" provides no opening statement of the narrator's purpose in telling this story. The focus of this tale is also apparently on objects other than the narrator: the Usher family and the physical house. Yet the opening paragraph reveals as much about the narrator as about the house. In fact, they are placed in opposition to each other as antagonists, as representatives of two differing views of the world. Also, even though the narrator is never explicit about why he tells this story, he reveals his reasons indirectly from the very beginning. Unlike the narrator of "Ligeia," who is explicitly writing his tale, this narrator speaks. His tone is conversational, punctuated with such phrases as: "I know not how it was ... I say insufferable ... which I compare to" (88). Though the narrator of "Ligeia" also uses such phrases, he does so less frequently and usually makes a reference to writing when he does. This narrator has or imagines a listener. Indeed, he seems to encode the implied reader as a listener who pretends to be dramatically present at the telling of the tale. One effect of this implied close contact between speaker and listener is a corresponding distance between the narrator in the time present and his experiences in the past. This is a distance upon which the narrator insists, not only by judging his past experience as either illusory or ultimately explicable, but also by a rhetorical device -- regularly reminding the reader of their current location. This distance is in opposition to the primary feeling of entrapment conveyed in the first paragraph. The narrator describes the physical oppression of the weather in an opening sentence, which also conveys through its diction, sound, and rhythm a corresponding psychological oppression: "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 evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher" (88). The paragraph ends with an image of psychological entrapment when he fails to change his response to the setting by changing his point of view. The main implication of this fairly subtle opposition is that the narrator is reluctant to tell this story, that in the very telling, he resists the oppressive memory of these events.

     The narrator mildly resists his own story, trying rhetorically to dissociate himself from it. The frequency of his assertions of the present tense increases at crucial points in his narrative: when he recounts his perception of the atmosphere (89), when he discusses Usher's artistic productions (92-93), and, especially, when he reports Usher's belief in the sentience of all things (93-94). However, such assertions virtually disappear after the death of Madeline. The narrator also resists the House of Usher. In fact, though the story is ostensibly about the House of Usher, the opening paragraph sets up an opposition between the narrator and the house, which proves to be the primary action of the tale.

     It bodes ill for the narrator to discover that Usher and his house mirror each other. The physical similarities are the clearest; they suggest that both man and house are living corpses, for though they look dead, they remain whole or animated. They are also alike in their manner of being, both showing a "wild inconsistency" between order and disorder, between life and death. Both are afflicted with constitutional ills that enhance their isolation, the house's atmosphere and Usher's morbid acuteness of the senses. Each appears on the verge of collapse. When Usher acknowledges these resemblances by asserting that the "physique" of the house affects the "morale" of his existence, he indicates that at the center of his malady is a growing dominance of the material world over his spirit, a world that includes both his house and his body. Usher seems to feel imprisoned in his body and in his house; as his body has come to resemble his house, so he fears a peculiar advance of mortality as his failing spirit comes to resemble his decaying body. The narrator has been called to Usher to relieve this situation. His purpose is to resist the progress of Usher's illness by the cheerfulness of his society. Once he has seen Usher's condition, it seems clear that any resistance is futile. Usher's condition is the condition of his world; its cause is in the nature of things. When Usher hesitantly admits "a more natural and far more palpable origin" of much of his gloom in Madeline's fatal illness, he implies that the narrator might comfort him, but this possibility is negated when Madeline herself passes through "a remote portion of the apartment" without noticing the narrator's presence. By this appearance, the narrator is, again unaccountably, oppressed and, turning expectantly to Usher, he finds that he has buried his face in his hands. Images of burial abound on all sides. The narrator is clearly helpless; he can do nothing.

     The middle of the story consists of a succession of images of Usher's imprisonment in his world and of the narrator's attempts to resist the oppressive feelings that attack him. The narrator reports no direct actions of his own upon Usher until the last night of Usher's life; he apparently does not try to change Usher's point of view. Instead, he reveals only his own efforts to resist becoming "ushered," efforts that fail, at least in the short run. Although the struggle of the narrator to resist becoming another image of Usher continues through the middle of the story, the narrative focuses on the image of Usher. What is the content of that image?

     This question has provoked so much controversy among the critics that I can hardly hope to claim for my account greater validity than any of a dozen other accounts of what happens to Usher. I have said that the root of Usher's problem is a fear of transformation. This view does not differ greatly from many other interpretations of Usher's character and malady. Where I differ is in my attempt to avoid inferences from the facts Usher gives or reveals that require validation from a theoretical construct imported from outside the story. I try to stay as close to the story as possible, to follow my principle of attempting to construct a first reading. As a result, I explain relatively little about Usher. He and Madeline remain essentially mysterious. As Patrick Quinn says, the story makes no direct exploration of the internal causes of Usher's "disease"; rather it presents Usher to the narrator and to the reader as an impenetrable mystery (Woodson 84-88). Instead of explaining why Usher is as he is, I want to explain the effect Usher has on the narrator.

     The root of Usher's problem, as he states it, is the fear that he will be transformed, that he will go mad. His body has come to mirror his cadaverous house and he believes his soul is being forced into a similar shape. The wild inconsistency between order and disorder in the appearance of the house is reflected in the death-in-life of Usher's body and in the state of Usher's soul, in his alternation between the vivacious and the sullen. Thus, it appears to Usher that the house is transforming him body and soul into a mirror of itself. Usher's morbid acuteness of the senses may be both cause and effect of this strain on his spirit. The combined strain and sensitivity place Usher on the brink of dissolution, awaiting the shock that will push him over the edge. Behind all is the house as cause.

     In Usher's mind, the sentient house wills this transformation. Indeed, it wills that all things in it mirror it. Madeline's passing briefly through the apartment where the men first visit seems symbolically suggestive on several levels, one of which is the passage of the old preferred order out of the house. On another level, it suggests the brief progress of the human soul through this vale of tears and through a door from which there is supposedly no return, for the narrator will not see her again until her burial. Her passing, then, parallels all of the losses Usher fears: of Madeline herself, of his physical integrity, of his composure, his sanity, and his life.

     While Madeline is dying, Usher entertains the narrator with works of art that reflect the polarities of his mental state, even though the narrator sees these works as products of the manic rather than of the depressive state. The narrator says they are "the result of that intense mental collectedness and concentration to which I have previously alluded as observable only in particular moments of the highest artificial excitement" (93). This observation may recall an image from the story's opening, which has been gaining in significance at least since the description of Usher's symptoms. The narrator compares his experience of "utter depression of soul" to "the after-dream of the reveller upon opium -- the bitter lapse into every-day life -- the hideous dropping off of the veil" (88). The feelings that accompany this image, "an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart -- an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime" (88), constitute an accurate description of the effect of Usher's art. At his most ecstatic, Usher produces feelings of intolerable awe; his works partake of a "highly distracted ideality" that throws "a sulphurous lustre over all" (92). His works compel the narrator's spirit to awed contemplation. This experience might be termed "the satanic sublime," an inversion of the heavenly sublime as seen in Ann Radcliffe. Usher's art draws the narrator's attention to a universe in which the heavenly sublime is impossible, an illusion of those observers whose imperfect senses lend color to the charnel house. Usher's painting most vividly produces this effect, for as a product of Usher's visionary mood, it portrays the confinement of vision: the light in the exitless tunnel, the soul imprisoned in the coffins of the body, of the house, and of the cosmos itself. A depiction of Usher's universe, the painting suggests what a man of morbidly acute senses may "see" when his sharp eyes pierce the veil of "every-day life." Usher's vision derives from ecstasy, not from the after-dream of opium. Ecstasy for Usher is the extension of his reason to the utmost reach of his senses. At this limit, he discovers a blank wall that turns him back into his dark and gloomy prison.

     "The Haunted Palace" continues a logical pattern suggested by the painting. In an allegory based upon key images and ideas in the story, the poem expresses Usher's sense of the inevitability of the spirit's madness within its bodily prison, the unavoidable surrender of the individual self to disintegration. It is no wonder that Usher believes the material world to be alive since its vitality seems to overcome his spirit. Usher's books reflect a similar sense of imprisonment and of desire for escape, alternating as they do between treatments of the ideal and contemplations of mortality. Usher, despite his acute sensitivity, is entrapped in the prison house of his senses. All objects in his world exhale gloom: every object he makes radiates this same gloom; and he himself has come to radiate gloom. His experience tends to prove the sentience of the material universe. His power to pursue the ecstatic pole seems to depend on the existence of Madeline, for when she dies, his searches cease.

     As he reports Usher's behavior and their activities, the narrator's rhetorical reminders of his presence increase and become more desperate in tone. He describes their artistic pursuits: "I shall ever bear about me a memory of the many solemn hours I thus spent alone with the master of the House of Usher.... His long improvised dirges will ring forever in my ears. Among other things, I hold painfully in mind.... (vivid as their images now are before me) ... I have just spoken of that morbid condition of the auditory nerve, that intense mental collectedness and concentration to which I have previously alluded.... The words of one of these rhapsodies I have easily remembered" (92-93). These signals of the narrator's presence in the present tend to emphasize an irony that pervades this telling. His experience is inescapable. It repeatedly overtakes him. Usher's images of himself are oppressively persistent. The narrator's very efforts to escape into the present of the narration betray him, for what he wishes to escape in the past awaits him in the future, "will ring forever in my ears." Within the drama of the telling, the narrator's most desperate moment seems to be just before Madeline's death, when he returns to the subject of the sentience of the house.

     The narrator begins the first paragraph after his recitation from memory of Usher's poem, this way: "I well remember that suggestions arising from this ballad led us into a train of thought wherein there became manifest an opinion of Usher's which I mention not so much on account of its novelty ... as on account of the pertinacity with which he maintained it" (93). The narrator reports that he started at Usher's mention of the atmosphere enclosing the grounds. Usher builds his case out of the hauntingly inexplicable experiences that the narrator himself has had in his approach to the house. Under this pressure to believe, the narrator flees vigorously into the rhetorical present: "Such opinions need no comment, and I will make none" (94). Of course, he has already called such opinions ridiculous superstitions (89, 91). However, his experience at Usher has so far tended to confirm the reality of the impressions he wants to insist are illusory and to confirm the main effect that follows from these impressions, belief in some inimical occult power. Such opinions, in fact, need a great deal of comment. They demand of the narrator his tale.

     It would be rather difficult at this point for the implied reader to see himself other than as the object of the narrator's rhetoric. What the narrator asks for now is agreement with his judgment of the situation. Whatever the causes of Usher's decay, they cannot be willed upon him by an external force such as a house. The implied reader is also pressured to resist the narrator's rhetoric, for appearances are against the narrator, and he has no alternative explanation. The narrator appears to be telling his story to deny the significance upon which his story insists. As he resists his story, so his story resists him, refusing to take the shape he desires for it. His story mirrors the House of Usher, which seems to utter rather than to be uttered by Usher. The narrator thus reveals his obsession. In the final one-third of the story, we shall see that the narrator is ushered and uttered. He becomes the voice of Usher speaking to the implied reader, trying not to speak what he must speak, trying not to mirror Usher, but mirroring him just the same. Could he convince his listener that what he has experienced is illusion, he might perhaps convince himself and so exorcise the story. Somewhat like the Ancient Mariner, he is compelled to tell his tale, but compelled by inner necessity to be free of the tale, to save himself. Infected (the word is the narrator's, 95) by Usher, he proceeds to spread the disorder, his dis-ease, far and wide in the effort to be cured. After the account of Madeline's burial, the narrator's efforts at identifying with his listener are less frequent and less desperate. The death of Madeline is followed by the disappearance of all light from Usher's eyes and by rhetorical hopelessness in the narrator. Usher roams without object from chamber to chamber and gazes "upon vacancy for long hours," as if listening (95). Soon the narrator is doing the same. This ushering of the narrator precedes a series of three visions that the House of Usher offers the narrator as final evidence of its view of the world.

     First, Usher comes to the narrator's room in a mockery of the narrator's mission to cheer up Usher. His "mad hilarity" appalls the narrator, but since anything is better than being alone, the narrator welcomes his presence. Usher has come to show him something, the peculiar storm outside, which the narrator at first thinks sublimely beautiful. Upon further observation, he concludes that Usher must not look at it. He reaches this concluson when he notices that the seemingly living whirlwind appears imprisoned within "the unnatural light of a faintly luminous and distinctly visible gaseous exhalation which hung about and enshrouded the mansion" (96). For the first time, the narrator reports direct resistance to Usher's perception and a direct attempt to explain it away as "merely electrical phenomena not uncommon" or as the result of the miasma of the tarn. As a diversion, he suggests reading.

     The second vision is much more complexly presented. Indeed, in its complexity it threatens to become ludicrous. While the narrator attempts to entertain Usher with a hopeful sounding story, Usher is not diverted except by the irony that he alone perceives. As Usher's arrival in the narrator's room mocks the narrator's earlier arrival at Usher, and as the revelation of the storm emphatically affirms Usher's world view, so Madeline's escape from the tomb mocks "The Mad Trist," and her appearance turns the screw of the horror of Usher's world view.

     "The Mad Trist," while it may, as the narrator asserts, lack imagination, speaks rather directly to Usher's despair. The story, in the portion the narrator tells, is of the reconquest of a palace of gold, which had been reduced by a dragon into a hermit's hut, a hut with most of the characteristics of the haunted palace of Usher's poem. Ethelred's progress, then, suggests the possibility, the hope, that King Thought might retake his lost kingdom and don again the purple for which he was born. However, in the background is the opposite horror, the echoing series of events leading up to the destruction of the metaphorical king, Usher, and his palace. Madeline's escape from her tomb is a mockery of the recovery of reason.

     Because Madeline has been associated with Usher's hope that the universe is unbounded and because she has been the main source of comfort in his life, placing her alive in the tomb is the most horrifying image of the human condition in Usher's world. The image of living burial, echoed by all the images of enclosure in the tale, even by the idea of mirrored images, expresses the fear that Usher cannot bear to face. Upon her burial, Usher looked most like a corpse, and she looked most alive, for it appears characteristic of their diseases to wear aspects the opposite of their actual states. But though they appear opposite, their appearances are different facets of the same meaning: life, the spirit, is entombed in this alien world. Essentially, death and life are indistinguishable; the siblings are both dead and alive. Madeline's reappearance after her "death" suggests that death is not final, that it is not an exit from the prison house of life, but rather, a kind of re-entrance. Madeline's defining motion in the tale is to pass through doors, all of which are within the House of Usher: the apartment where the narrator first sees her, the lid of her coffin, the door of her temporary tomb, and the door of the narrator's room. Each time she passes through a door, she finds herself in another space that mirrors the condition of Usher. Her universe is Usher's universe, the exitless tunnel unnaturally lit from within. She, Usher, and the narrator have been placed alive in the tomb. For them, this is the human condition.

     From this view of the universe, the narrator attempts to flee, but in his flight he encounters the third terrifying vision. In the immediate face of this revelation, he tries feebly to deny, but he cannot deny what he sees. Surrounded by mirrorings -- the twins, the reelings, the usherings, the collapses, the doublings of storm and house -- enclosed on every side by images of his containment, the narrator flees: "From that chamber and from that mansion, I fled aghast" (98). But as the irony of his rhetoric has already revealed, he cannot escape. He is infected. The House of Usher utters him with its last breath, and he is expelled into a space identical in meaning with those he has left. Were the narrator speaking rather than being spoken, he might seize his last opportunity to assert that with the destruction of the house and the appearance of the natural light of the moon, Usher's disease disappears from the earth. But it is clear from the manner of his telling as well as from his vision of the moon that the narrator has not yet accomplished this exorcism. The moon insists upon being unnatural, "a wild light ... a gleam so unusual ... the full, setting, and blood-red moon," which bursts upon his sight (98). Usher is dead and yet, in the narrator, Usher lives on. The universe is a coffin unnaturally lit from within.

     The narrator's terror is multileveled. He has received a vision of the universe as a claustrophobic entrapment deliberately imposed by an alien sentience with the apparent goals of destroying the unity of the individual and of transforming the self into a part of the inimical universe. This universe is a devourer, and the human soul is its food. This vision has proven irresistible. It has become the narrator's vision. Turn where he might, he sees only Usher. In the effort to throw off this burden, he tells his story, asking his implied listener to confirm his fruitless assertions that his experience was illusory, but in the very act of telling, he is again caught up in the compelling vision of Madeline's return and the doubled collapse of the house. How is the implied reader to dissociate himself from this narrator? What sort of closure does this tale offer?

     The implied reader, as the recipient of a failed act of persuasion, has been deeply implicated in the narrator's terror. Implicit in his attempts at persuasion has been the promise that the tale would come to an end, that his unaccountable experiences would be explained. The story ends in dreamlike visions, the full return in memory of what the narrator would gladly alter or forget. The final image of the tarn's waters closing over the fragments of the house violates probability, and the narrator offers no explanation for it. If the opposition between the narrator's rational explanations and his unaccountable experiences is to be resolved, the implied reader must do so without the help of the narrator, and the immediately available alternatives are not satisfactory. On the one hand, there are no unequivocally supernatural events in this story. On the other, much of what the narrator has experienced has been strange and has tended to confirm that the narrator has been convinced of Usher's world view against his will and despite his continuing resistance.

     The evidence for Usher's interpretaion of events is circumstantial. Atmospheres can appear naturally. Unconscious people can appear to be dead and then regain consciousness. To a panicked, fleeing observer, a house collapsing in a storm may appear to fall wholly into a nearby pool. These events are improbable rather than impossible. They affect the narrator so powerfully because they occur so close together in time and space, because Usher has a persuasive theory to account for the conjunction of such coincidences, and because the narrator has personally felt the apparently malignant force that Usher says is responsible for such events. As long as the implied reader accepts the role the narrator offers, that of sympathetic listener, there is no evading the narrator's quandary. Because puzzlement is permanent, closure is cut off in this direction: the implied reader must share the narrator's obsession.

     One alternative for escaping this uncomfortable position is to turn against the narrator. Taking the hints of the dreamlike experience of the last night, the implied reader may enter into a judgmental role. Perhaps the narrator is mad. Indeed, he must be mad to believe that his world is an alien intelligence bent on his destruction. That is paranoia. If by rereading the reader can find a new set of instructions for constructing the implied reader and can rearrange the story in such a way as to explain the narrator's paranoia, then he may be able to explain away the world that the narrator fears. Here we run into a lack of information about the narrator. To confirm any hypothesis about what is wrong with him beyond his being a rather prosaic and thoughtful fellow who has had an extraordinary experience, the implied reader must treat his narration as a dream to analyze.

     A significant portion of the criticism of the tale has considered the narrator as a mad dreamer and has attempted to work out the meaning of his dreams. Most such interpretations are, of course, psychological allegories, though some extend into Poe's metaphysics and aesthetics. We will look at these interpretations more carefully in the next part of the chapter. At this point, the significant fact is their variety. Several critics see the tale as a metaphysical dream-allegory in which the narrator is confronted by an opportunity to achieve transcendental union with the universe. In this case, the narrator fails to understand that what he is offered is visionary blessedness rather than terror. Prominent proponents of this view include E. W. Carlson in the introduction to his casebook on the tale and Richard Wilbur in "The House of Poe," which is reprinted in the same casebook (see bibliographic note at the end of chapter 7). Other critics see the tale more as a psychological dream-allegory in which various characters stand for different components of the personality. Such readings tend to agree that the tale shows the disintegration of a mind, either Usher's or the narrator's. That disintegration may result from the hypertrophy of one faculty at the expense of others as Edward H. Davidson argues (Woodson). Or one can go with the Jungians: Colin Martindale says that Usher is unable to achieve individuation by transforming the terrible mother into the anima, David R. Saliba that Roderick as a symbol of the narrator's conscious mind fails to dominate Madeline as a symbol of his unconscious. In addition to these readings are those that treat the tale as an allegory in which the narrator is comparatively unimportant. All of the psychological readings of this type can easily be translated into interpretations of the narrator as dreamer along the lines followed by William Bysshe Stein (Carlson 1971) and K. A. Spaulding (Carlson 1971). One result of such readings is the kind of disorientation we discovered when we considered the possibility that the narrator in "Ligeia" hallucinates. If we follow the strong critical precedent for considering the whole tale as a dream, we need not concern ourselves too seriously with sorting out internal and external events. But to assume that all the reported events are internal to the narrator is to have to face an account with so many gaps in it, with so much abstraction already present, as to invite allegorical readings that can multiply almost endlessly. The narrator's dream can mean many things; therefore, it cannot be shown to mean any one thing. Furthermore, the major division among these readings is between those who argue that the narrator has failed to achieve unity in this life and those who argue that he has failed to see Usher's true blessedness, the "psychal" vision of divine eternity which Usher supposedly offers. Should real readers who are not Poe scholars achieve the latter reading, they would encounter, again, a pull of contrary poles that makes this tale unreadable.

     When one attempts to judge the narrator, he encounters a stubborn indeterminacy. This indeterminacy is just as strong if one does not assume the narrator to be a dreamer and still judges him as mistaken. Suppose he is an ordinary person come to help Usher. Does he fail because of his own rationalism as Bruce Olson argues (Carlson 1971: 97-99)? Because his own mind is diseased as Clark Griffith says (Veler 24)? Because, as Robert Crossley argues, he does not understand his role (226-27)? Because, as David Ketterer believes, the opposition is too strong (195-97)? Or because Usher is too weak, as the narrator might conclude? Behind the implied reader's attempts to judge the narrator is a desire to escape the terror of identification with the narrator. This desire is fruitless, for in the attempt to judge, the implied reader occupies the position the narrator attempts to occupy in relation to Usher. In his discovery of indeterminacy, the implied reader fails to master the narrator, mirroring the narrator's failure to master Usher.

     "The Fall of the House of Usher" will not be mastered. Like "Ligeia," it leaves the reader suspended between two views of the narrator, neither of which is satisfactory. Ketterer calls this effect "the arabesque." The tale can be interpreted in a variety of ways, but there are not levels of meaning: "A complete intepretation involves the ability to maintain these varying approaches and possibilities in a state of omnidimensional fusion" (181). Ketterer believes that this is the effect Poe desired as a means of teaching readers to beware of "conventional reality," the illusions of closure that we impose upon the world: "Poe made it his life's work to destroy this fabric of deception ... and if possible to see into that actuality beyond three-dimensional existence" (26). I believe Ketterer is correct about this tale, though the complexity of the means by which Poe accomplishes that end has yet to be revealed. Human beings are not generally made to be comfortable maintaining multiple viewpoints in omnidimensional fusion, nor, I suspect, are we capable of really seeing beyond this world. Nevertheless, we are capable of knowing the limitations of our intellectual instruments. This tale seems to force us to a state of perception in which we cannot, in good faith, impose a closure upon the tale. The role of implied reader is incomplete, yet the discomfort of that anticlosure makes the real reader desire to escape the role. What can real readers do to exorcise the ghost of an implied reader who will not go away? To begin to answer that question, I will examine some major features of the criticism that this tale has stimulated.
 

II

     There are many reasons why a work of art attracts to itself volumes of criticism many times its length. In the cases of Shakespeare and Faulkner, richness and complexity may be primarily responsible. In the more specific case of Hamlet, it may be that a deeply felt sense of mystery about the power of the work draws critics to it repeatedly. In the cases of "Ligeia" and "The Fall of the House of Usher," (and The Turn of the Screw as well), these factors are important, but the deliberate withholding of closure is a crucial cause of the extended debate over these stories. Some critics argue that the narrators are mad. Others vehemently respond that these are simply horror thrillers and the narrators merely vehicles for the tales. Others, like Ketterer and G. R. Thompson, search out a middle ground upon which the suspension between these two poles is consistent with Poe's metaphysics and literary theory. Helpful and suggestive as such middle positions are, they leave the stories unmastered, unread, and, therefore, haunting. I believe that these stories do produce closure, but of a kind radically different from that of most other fictions we encounter. In a step toward explaining how that closure comes about, I will examine the history of the imposition of closure upon "The Fall of the House of Usher."

     The imposition of closure is mastery of terror in bad faith, the assertion of victory without the substance of victory. I use the language of war because, as Stephen Mooney has accurately observed, these stories make the reader feel as if he is involved in a war (Carlson 1966: 295). Reader and work become adversaries when the work makes the reader desire closure and then refuses to grant it. I do not mean to suggest that the critics I discuss have written in bad faith about the tale. They have done what all of us critics are trained to do: they have looked at the text, the author, and his culture and have attempted to make sense out of all three by balancing them against each other. In that process, they have indirectly provided models for escape from a terrifying work, but those models are ultimately unsatisfying, even when they succeed.

     To be entrapped is intolerable. The reader and the text become adversaries, and there is no internal mechanism of release from the text. The "natural" closure of the last word is made to fail, and other forms that might provide a sense of an ending are absent, for example, the tying up of loose ends, projections of futures for the characters, a distribution of rewards and punishments, some sense that a significant event is more or less complete. The real reader cannot rest in this situation, but must find some way to end his experience, to disengage from a text that refuses to release him. The history of criticism of "The Fall of the House of Usher" is especially useful for examining the effects of placing readers in such an intolerable state, for much of that history records the efforts of readers to "fix" the tale, to relocate it outside of themselves and leave it behind. To be entrapped in a tale, to see oneself in the tale becoming the double of an afflicted narrator, to dissolve into multiple voices -- these processes are to some degree terrifying, threatening to the real reader's integrity of self. One can deal with such threats through various forms of denial, such as repression, naturalizing the story, or trivializing it. One can deal with the story through what may be more sophisticated forms of denial, such as masking the terror by focusing on allegorical meanings. Or one can deal with the terror by accepting it, making it an acknowledged part of oneself.

     The simplest form of denying the tale's terror is to actively forget the story, to push it away. Trivializing and naturalizing the terror are more sophisticated forms of denial. Todorov suggests that tales of the fantastic tend to resolve themselves when they end, either into the marvelous or into the uncanny. In the marvelous, the reader discovers the world of the tale not to be the real world of material causes that he occupies, but rather a world of pan-determinism and pan-signification where supernatural events are normal. In the uncanny, the reader learns the probable material causes of the apparently supernatural events. In the marvelous, supernatural events may be trivialized by being taken out of the "real" world; in the uncanny, they may be naturalized, shown to be natural events that only appeared supernatural. Poe's narrator is committed, even in the narrative present, to natural explanations of events, but his hesitation between natural and supernatural emerges in the urgency of his telling and of his attempts to naturalize the inexplicable. From Todorov's point of view, it would be natural for the reader to deal with a terrifying tale in the fantastic genre by completing the resolution that Poe does not provide. Such a solution amounts to fixing upon one of the first two of our three modes of response to anticlosure. J. O. Baily offers a typical example of trivialization toward the marvelous in his attempt to make the tale a literal vampire story, and John Hill offers a typical example of naturalization in his argument that Madeline's reappearance is an infectious hallucination resulting from Usher's insanity (Carlson 1971).

     Interpretations that emphasize abstract patterns in the story can be used as more sophisticated forms of denial. While one cannot assert with confidence that any particular critic is attempting to escape the tale's terror by retreating into abstractions, such interpretations offer the reader avenues of escape. That there are several persuasive allegorical readings is less likely to cause discomfort to the reader than do other indeterminacies of the reading experience. Sophisticated readers can comfortably accommodate many allegorical readings, for competent allegorical readings are nearly always plausible. However, they tend to focus on abstract patterns at the expense of the concrete experience of the story; they offer the reader an escape analogous to that of the subjects in Stanley Milgram's famous obedience experiments, an opportunity to ignore the suffering of the victim by concentrating on the technical aspects of the task of torture. The purpose of the story becomes the communication of a pattern, and the terror at the center of the reader's experience is pushed into the background.

     The most convincing of the allegorical interpretations draw their patterns directly from the careful study of Poe's thought and practice. For example, Maurice Beebe has offered a highly satisfying reading of the tale based on Poe's ideas of the structure and processes of the universe as expressed primarily in his cosmological meditation, "Eureka": "Roderick Usher is not depicted as a person in the universe; he is himself his universe. The power to create is the power to destroy, and his most triumphant creation is the obliteration of his suffering, diffused self in a return to the oneness which is nothingness" (Regan 133). This reading brings the tale into the pattern of creation in which the universe expands from its center to some limit of diffuseness only to collapse in upon itself again. Of course, this collapse may still be terrifying to the narrator and the reader. It may be argued that there is no guaranteed finality to Usher's dissolution, since the universe repeats its pattern of expansion and retraction; triumph is not certain. The main point here is that if the reader is not rigorous about dealing with his experience, he may accept this way out of the terror. Several of Poe's best-known critics have taken positions similar to this one. Carlson is perhaps the most insistent and, hence, the least convincing, in arguing that Poe wrote no tales of terror at all, but only pleasant allegories of vision; the end of this tale, according to Carlson, shows Usher and the narrator "undergoing a psychal vision," which hints "that the psychic and the transcendent are finally related" (Veler 18-19; see also Carlson 1973). While one must grant that there is a relationship, it seems difficult to characterize that relationship as positive or liberating. Wilbur, like Carlson, takes this sort of interpretation to the extreme point at which terror is no longer a noticeable element in the tale.

     Wilbur argues in "The House of Poe" that the tale is an allegory of the narrator's journey into himself to recover the visionary soul symbolized by the ideal original state of the Haunted Palace, but which has now fallen into the ruin symbolized by Usher and his house: "When the House of Usher disintegrates or dematerializes at the close of the story, it does so because Roderick Usher has finally become all soul. The Fall of the House of Usher, then, is not really a horror story; it is a triumphant report by the narrator that it is possible for the poetic soul to shake off this temporal, rational, physical world and escape, if only for a moment, to a realm of unfettered vision" (Carlson 1971: 94). Such an interpretation is a wrenching denial of Usher's and of the narrator's characterizations of their own experiences. It is available to the real reader only if he insistently, indeed doggedly, reads the tale as a chapter in "Eureka" rather than as it is traditionally read by thousands of people. Perhaps one of the most troubling aspects of recent Poe criticism is the trend, exemplified by Wilbur but visible in many other critical pieces, of forcing every Poe text into too simple a conformity with "Eureka." I am not prepared to deny that there may be a consistency between "Eureka" and "The Fall of the House of Usher," but I am inclined to see that consistency as more subtle than it appears in Wilbur's argument. For Wilbur, the reality of the experience of Usher, the narrator, the implied reader, and the real reader is absorbed into an intellectual abstraction, an attempt to neutralize if not actually reverse the polarity of that experience. One of the paradoxes of Wilbur's reading is that in arguing that the narrator recovers an imagination that was oppressed by the intellect, Wilbur asserts the intellect's power of abstraction over the imaginative power of sympathy that binds the narrator and the implied reader together in terror. In Wilbur's reading, the reader divides himself and casts away concrete experience for the security of an intellectual sanctuary.

     Though I think such readings wrong-headed, they remain highly effective escapes from the terror of entrapment in the tale. However, the especially sophisticated reader who moves to this level of reading continues to mirror the narrator. He continues to attempt to explain away the feelings the story has created, to talk himself out of this trap. Such an escape may work, just as repression, trivialization, and naturalization may work. The human mind is nothing if not versatile. But the critical intelligence cannot, in good faith, accept such escapes and continue to admire its own integrity. For this reason, if the real reader turns to criticism in search of help to bring an end to his reading, he is bound to be more attracted to readings such as those offered by Thompson, Ketterer, and Katrina Bachinger, readings that, in one way or another, affirm the ambiguity of the tale and acknowledge the hesitation/tension in which the implied reader is trapped. At least these critics do not drain the tale of the real terror that has reached out toward the real reader. Yet Ketterer and Thompson, as we have seen, leave the reader in the "limbo" of ambiguity. They assert, correctly, that Poe meant to put us there, and they imply that we can only stay put. If the real reader does not find a satisfactory exit from the tale, he will eventually take a "bad faith" exit, most likely some form of passive repression, such as allowing the story to fade from conscious memory. Among Poe's critics, one of the most interesting from this point of view is Joseph Garrison, Jr., who argues that the experience of terror in Poe's Gothic tales may be reconciled with Poe's desire to move his readers toward transcendence.

     Because terror fantasy reaches out toward the reader with a psychological threat, the normal human response is to use his own psychological powers against the terrors. Denial is one form of this exercise, but ultimately it is less satisfying than some form of facing the terror squarely, of holding it in the consciousness, recognizing it for what it is, and being able to say, "I have in myself the resources for contemplating this terror. Even if the universe I experience as I read this story is the real universe, I can live in it." Georges Poulet says of Poe: "If for him, man is buried alive, then man's mission is to explore the interior surface of the dwelling" (Woodson 105). While D. H. Lawrence falls into the trap of Usher and never really escapes, his evaluation of Poe's tales of terror seems profound on this point: "Man must be stripped even of himself. And it is a painful, sometimes a ghastly process.... For the human soul must suffer its own disintegration, consciously, if ever it is to survive" (Carlson 1971: 35). But how is it possible to escape from the trap of the tale in a satisfactory way? Garrison argues:

In Poe's writings, the protagonists who fail to discover Existence as a stairway to Essence document the tragedy of the human struggle, as Poe understands it; but they also affirm Truth, in an indirect way, in that they demonstrate the inadequacy of finitude and actuality as a foundation for total experience, and in so doing, suggest the possibility of another kind of resolution. (143)

One cannot be horrified by Prospero's demise or the fall of the house of Usher, for example, without implicitly affirming principles which are antithetic to the world views to which these protagonist submit. (146)

Horror and terror are legitimate effects when they are calculated to compel the reader to turn his attention and affections from a debilitating and terrifying analysis of the human condition to an alternative -- an ideal -- in Poe's case, "the sentiment of Intellectual Happiness here, and the Hope of a higher Intellectual Happiness hereafter." (148)

This argument seems precisely to describe one way of meeting the terror of the tale. One asks oneself how Poe accepted it and looks at Poe's other writings to find out. One does not deny the terror, but discovers instead one of several ways of coming to terms with it, by accepting Poe's entire vision. Garrison points out that in "Premature Burial," one sees a protagonist whose terrifying dreams strengthen his soul. The narrator says:
My soul acquired tone -- acquired temper ... I became a new man, and lived a man's life....

     There are moments when, even to the sober eye of Reason, the world of our sad Humanity may assume the semblance of a Hell -- but the imagination of man is no Carathis, to explore with impunity its every cavern. Alas! the grim legion of sepulchral terrors cannot be regarded as altogether fanciful -- but, like the Demons in whose company Afrasiab made his voyage down the Oxus, they must sleep, or they will devour us -- they must be suffered to slumber, or we perish. (316)

This narrator implies that by facing terror, one is strengthened to live with it, without necessarily falling into the obsessions of Usher or his friend. Garrison also points out that further reading of Poe leads to the resolution of terror in Poe's "religious" ideas, in the ideal of intellectual happiness, and in Poe's faith in the ultimate goodness of creation.

     Garrison's solution seems particularly satisfying because it shows how the tale of terror itself may be a part of Poe's entire artistic program. He does not force a premature closing of the tale, which would amount to a discomforting denial of its central quality, the terror it arouses by entrapping the real reader. Still, Garrison's solution is problematic. Consistent as his idea may be with Poe's theory and practice, Garrison's solution is not an aesthetic, but a moral one: it conceives of the effect of the tale as a particularly convincing proposition about the world. One's terror amounts to an affirmation of principles, a rejection of finite actuality; this leads to a search in Poe for some articulation of these principles, an articulation to be found, perhaps, in "Eureka." One difficulty with this solution is that several principles might just as easily be invoked in opposition to the world view expressed in the stories, for example, any of several religious systems and even a nonreligious system such as that suggested by the "grace under pressure" of several Hemingway heroes. As a moral effect, the terror of this tale would seem to be rather "hit or miss." The reader's response to the terror here seems to be an intellectual response, a lining up of principles on each side to balance some form of faith or of value judgment against a view of the world that robs faith and value of external support. In other words, Garrison's solution, attractive as it is and true as it may be to what Poe thought he was doing, seems finally another highly sophisticated allegorizing of the tale. Although the narrator of "Premature Burial" shows an improvement in his psychic health as a result of his terror, there is little in what he says to suggest that this improvement is the result of adopting or reaffirming his faith or his values. We shall have to look further if we are to understand the nature of an aesthetic response to this tale of terror.

     All of the critical responses I have discussed share the feeling that the tale lacks an internal mechanism of closure. Most interpretations of "The Fall of the House of Usher" and of "Ligeia" are attempts to find closure. To borrow Frank Kermode's borrowed description of the simplest form of plot, these tales say "Tick," then leave the reader in the interval before "Tock." By refusing to say "Tock," they force the reader to find a way of saying it for himself. For most of the critics, even those as insightful as Garrison, the great temptation is to formulate "Tock" as an intellectual affirmation of a moral content against the perceived moral content of the terror of the tales. The variety of attempts to close these tales demonstrates the power they have to make the reader desire closure. "Ligeia" and "The Fall of the House of Usher" entrap the real reader in the role of implied reader by opening rather than closing at the ends of their texts. Each compels the real reader to seek revisions of the implied reader by rescanning the text in search of resolutions. By refusing to provide resolutions, by refusing to be read, the tale makes the role of implied reader obsessive and intolerable. The role has no end, no last word. It holds the reader within it, reading him. Just as the narrator compulsively repeats his tale to some listener to regain his previous comfortable state and to escape the nightmare in which he finds himself, so the implied reader and the real reader retell their experiences to each other in what threatens to be an eternal colloquy, mind-splitting and transforming. It is little wonder that critics reflect some desperation to assert closure and yet are unable to articulate a convincing version. Even Garrison leaves the terror untamed in itself. In chapter 10 I shall argue that the aesthetic response to these tales makes such relief virtually unnecessary, that it, in effect, blesses the monsters and makes them beautiful. The need for that blessing will be more acute after we have seen how the greatest masterpiece of terror fantasy turns the screw of the reader's desire for escape by implicating him in unspeakable crimes.

End of Chapter 8.

Contents
  Notes &
Permissions
  Preface & Acknowledg-
ments
1:
Introduction
2: Horror in Literature and the Literature of Horror
3: The Marvelous Horror Thriller
4:  The Fantastic/Uncanny Horror Thriller
5: The Aesthetics of the Horror Thriller: Stoker's Dracula
6: The Pure Fantastic Tale of Terror
7:  Anticlosure: Poe's "Ligeia"
8: The Entrapped Critic:
Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher"
9: The Master's Trap:
James's The Turn of the Screw 
10: Escape: An Aesthetics of Terror Fantasy
11: Terror and the Sublime
Sources
Index