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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Gothic Interpretation

Is there any significance in the fact that 'The House of Usher' can be turned into the acronym 'Thou'? I couldn't possibly say; "that...", as Father Jack would no doubt bark, "...would be an Ecumenical Matter". It is exactly where you would begin your analysis of Poe's tale though, if you were studying it in depth, but we won't be doing that - not yet.

My intention for this post is that it will form one of two strands. In the first post, here, we will examine the language of illustration in comic books, and the ability of an author to create pictures in the mind of the reader with words, using Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. And the second post, which with luck will appear on the Forbidden Planet International Blog, will refer to Poe’s House of Usher, and other Gothic texts, in relation to the Batman as the ultimate Gothic Outsider, a creation that deserves, in my opinion, to be regarded on a par with Frankenstein and Dracula as one of the great creations of Gothic literature.

For its part, whilst this post will focus more narrowly on a close-reading of The Fall of the House of Usher, and an example of the language of illustration, from a Classics Illustrated abridgement of the tale; from Classics Illustrated No.40, published by the Gilberton Company in August 1947, it will be a comprehensive look at the qualities of Gothic literature that Poe utilizes in the tale, and which are so substantially missing from the illustrated version.

Extracted from, The Fall of the House of Usher, by Edgar Allan Poe.

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. I know not how it was — but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me — upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain — upon the bleak walls — upon the vacant eye-like windows — upon a few rank sedges — and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees — with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium — the bitter lapse into everyday life — the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was 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. What was it — I paused to think — what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was 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. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down — but with a shudder even more thrilling than before — upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

What strikes me immediately is that there is no dialogue in this first passage. There is a large amount of interior monologue though, and it is entirely possible that all the "dull", "dark", and dreary, scenery, is simply a feeling that the narrator has, rather than an actual landscape. It may be that the journey toward The House of Usher is along a long, and gloomy, tract of countryside, but it may also be that it just feels that way to our weary traveller. Of course I won’t know for sure what to make of the story until I read the entire text. Meantime though, I would assume our illustrator has made a note of the following key points:

1. It is Autumn.
2. The journey toward Roderick Usher’s house is along a long ‘dreary tract’ of countryside.
3. The clouds hang ‘oppressively low’, and the evening is drawing in.
4. The ‘I’ of the story, the narrator, is weary, and the House itself causes a ‘sorrowful impression’ casting a sort of tangible gloom over the landscape.
5. The narrator makes a point of tethering his horse near the pool of water, the black tarn, beside the House, and gazing into it, at the reflection of the place.

Let’s take a look then and see if our illustrator has also picked up on these elements:

Okay, these first two pages from the Classics Illustrated version of Poe’s tale, have raced ahead of the text and jumbled the sequence of events. It is not uncommon, in fact it is common for an 'abridged' version of a story to do this, but here, with this sort of story, it causes a number of problems and illustrates why someone unfamiliar with the literature they are working on should not even attempt to interpret the text. At least not before reading the story thoroughly and doing a decent amount of research. For one thing, this interpretation completely ignores the importance of key elements of the story, like the season, like the setting, like Roderick Usher's hair (you'll have to trust me on this). The importance of the black tarn is overlooked to such an extent that it is placed, I’m guessing, about half a mile away from the house - which makes it difficult for the house to cleave in twain and fall into it. Also, because the entire story is abridged to a few pages, this version gives the impression that Usher’s house is full of people, like the unintentionally hilarious doctor above. Technically, for the period, the drawings are good, but that is not enough because it simply is not a good interpretation of the text, and as a result the drawings do not compensate for the words that have been removed, which is what they must do if we are to replace written language with visual language.

The importance of the tarn cannot be overstated. Poe’s narrator has already, within the first paragraph, introduced the concept of the ‘sublime’ and how even the contemplation of the House of Usher defeats that state, and yet when he first sees the house, he looks for its reflection in the tarn not to weaken its influence, but to enhance and repeat that first terrible thrill. This action firmly establishes the credentials of the tale as a Gothic story and casts the narrator as both the 'I' of the story, and as a fellow reader of the unfolding tale because he to is attempting to recreate that comfortable thrill that comes from transgression by proxy. In addition, not only does the reflected house prefigure the fate of the dwelling, but it also serves as a corruption of the sublime where the house is at one with nature and natural surroundings, but it manages to repel even that notion.

I have said that the sole effect of my somewhat childish experiment --that of looking down within the tarn --had been to deepen the first singular impression. There can be no doubt that the consciousness of the rapid increase of my superstition -- for why should I not so term it? -- served mainly to accelerate the increase itself. Such, I have long known, is the paradoxical law of all sentiments having terror as a basis. And it might have been for this reason only, that, when I again uplifted my eyes to the house itself, from its image in the pool, there grew in my mind a strange fancy -- a fancy so ridiculous, indeed, that I but mention it to show the vivid force of the sensations which oppressed me. I had so worked upon my imagination as really to believe that about the whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves and their immediate vicinity -- an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the gray wall, and the silent tarn -- a pestilent and mystic vapour, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued.

Of course, to be fair, the illustrator had to cut corners, and that is why the letter from Roderick Usher has been introduced so soon. It is not a bad conceit, introducing it here, or even at the very beginning, because the illustrator has very little room, there are, after all, no less than three stories by Poe, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Adventures of Hans Pfall and this one, all crammed into this one comic book. Also, I suppose, it could be argued that at least this was a way of introducing literature to comic book readers – badly abridged literature, but a step, nonetheless, up from the standard comic-book fare. At least one can imagine that is the sort of rationale that might have been used. Hopefully, today, we have moved on from that sort of misguided reasoning, but it is worth our while looking at the sort of mistakes it is easy to make when we attempt to turn classic texts into ‘graphic novels’; especially in light of the fact that the publisher NBM is currently publishing modern versions of the Classics Illustrated collection through its imprint Papercutz.

For our very special purposes, we’re going to imagine that, unlike the illustrator above, we have an entire comic book in which to illustrate Poe’s story, so will be able to integrate many of the things we learn from examining first, the nature of the Gothic tradition, and then the text above, both the testimony, and the unwitting testimony, and the signs, symbols, allusions and metaphors, that Poe has woven into the intricate image he has painted for us in words.

Poe’s stories are among the very best examples of Gothic literature. A student of the form, Poe was aware that Gothic literature is a means of both having one’s cake, and eating it. In Gothic fiction the terrors and horrors of transgression can be celebrated, whilst the story can also be held up as a stern warning against those very excesses. And all of this happens in the safety of that ‘other’ place, that Gothic place, so the tale itself can be enjoyed from a safe and comfortable distance. The moment the reader sits down with these stories, featuring, as they do, uncanny events, doubles, alter egos, the crossing of boundaries, the alienation of the human subject from the rational, recognisable, world, they are in fact in familiar and comfortable territory. In The Art of Fiction, David Lodge says, of the Gothic-horror tradition, that the “…predictability of the rhetoric, its very lack of originality, guarantees the reliability of the narrator and makes his uncanny experiences more believable. The House of Usher produces such an uncanny experience, and explores these predictable terrors by revisiting those classic Gothic tropes that both embodied and invoked many of the cultural anxieties of the 18th Century mind: an alienating landscape, an untamed forest, a castle-like building with hidden passageways and hidden chambers - the labyrinth. And, typically, of Gothic fiction centred on the Southern States of America, the focus is on a grand house and an established Southern family disintegrating and decomposing.

The “I” of the Gothic tale, the narrator at the heart of the story, and at the heart of Poe’s major tales in particular, is always deserving of special attention. Gothic stories usually attempt to trick you into their believability, in the same way that urban legends do, by insisting that these events really happened, or that there is empirical proof that they did, usually in a book or a letter or a newspaper article. When it was first published, the template for the Gothic tale, Walpole’s classic The Castle of Otranto, was titled The Castle of Otranto, A Story. Translated by William Marshal, Gent., from the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas at Otranto, a trick involving a fake translator and a bogus original manuscript. In this story, our narrator informs us that he received a letter asking for his help, from his childhood friend, Roderick Usher.

So we must, initially at least, be suspicious that our narrator might be unreliable, and the letter he informs us of may not, like the beating of the heart in Poe’s tale The Tell-Tale Heart, even exist. Such tricksterism and duality is to be expected in this sort of fiction, and the ‘ideal reader’ of The House of Usher anticipates and welcomes it. The ideal reader will already question whether the countryside the narrator is riding through is really dreary, dull and dark, or whether his thoughts are simply the thoughts of someone on a huge come-down from the Opium binge he so casually mentions. After all, at this point, the only witness we have is this narrator, and the ideal reader, familiar with the Gothic template, is aware that this throws up the possibility that there is, perhaps, not just a manipulative and unreliable ‘I’ at the centre of the narrative, but a psychologically disturbed one – determined to drag us into his imagined psychodrama. Aware of all the possible thrills that are yet to come on this roller coaster narrative, the ideal reader is already slightly unnerved, and suspicious of what he or she is being told, which is exactly what Poe wanted to achieve. This is the heightened state he wants us to be in while we read his story.

Considered by many to be the best example of the ‘totality’ that Poe speaks of in The Poetic Principle, The House of Usher is an attempt by the author to create a story where every thing works, where every element and detail is important and relevant. The story, intended to create an emotional response in the reader, opens with an unnamed narrator arriving at the house of his old boyhood friend, Roderick Usher, after receiving a letter from him complaining of an illness and asking for his comfort.

…Roderick Usher, had been one of my boon companions in boyhood; but many years had elapsed since our last meeting. A letter, however, had lately reached me in a distant part of the country -- a letter from him -- which, in its wildly importunate nature, had admitted of no other than a personal reply. The MS. gave evidence of nervous agitation. The writer spoke of acute bodily illness -- of a mental disorder which oppressed him -- and of an earnest desire to see me, as his best, and indeed his only personal friend, with a view of attempting, by the cheerfulness of my society…

The house itself creates a sort of miasma of gloom and despair, that seems to affect the surrounding countryside and even reaches out as far as the eye can see. From the moment the narrator first sees the place, it darkens his very soul, and with his first inspection he spots the fault that foreshadows the ultimate destruction of the place.

…Perhaps the eye of a scrutinising observer might have discovered a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn.

Once inside the house, the Narrator sees before him a radically changed man. Roderick Usher’s appearance has changed drastically.

The silken hair, too, had been suffered to grow all unheeded, and as, in its wild gossamer texture, it floated rather than fell about the face, I could not, even with effort, connect its Arabesque expression with any idea of simple humanity.

When Usher’s twin sister, Madeline dies, the narrator and he entomb her in a vault in the bowels of the house, prior to her being permanently buried. A week later, during a storm, an agitated Roderick Usher enters the narrator's bedroom, and the narrator attempts to calm his old friend by reading The Mad Trist, a story that in many ways parallels their current predicament. Just as the narrator reads of cracking and ripping sounds, those same sounds are heard somewhere in the house and when the narrator reads of shrieking, a shriek is heard. Usher becomes hysterical, and exclaims that these sounds are being made by his sister, who was alive when she was entombed, and at that point the bedroom door bursts open to reveal Madeline Usher who falls violently, in death, upon her brother, who then dies of his own terror.

Horrified, the narrator flees the place and the House of Usher breaks in two and in pleasing and terrible symmetry sinks into the black tarn that it was reflected in, in the first paragraph of the story.

Illustration Notes

I think editing any of the narrator’s words away is a mistake, unless it is a reference to a movement or action, such as unsaddling a horse, or looking at a tree stump, which is obvious and easy to convey. The story is full of poetic phrases, of rhythm and measure, and it would be a shame to miss out on that. Besides, the mood is very much set by the alliteration of adjectives like, dull, dark, and dreary, so even if we fail to convey that successfully with the drawings, the words will compensate. Once the mise-en-scene is fully established, the narrator’s words are not so necessary and the movement he describes can be shown without relying on the text. Thanks to the early narration, the ‘insufferable gloom’ that pervades the narrator’s spirit, is almost palpable, so there is no need to go overboard with comic facial expressions.

The landscape is soundless so despite the fact that it is Autumn and the trees are perhaps shedding their leaves, they are not swirling around in the wind. Night is slowly closing in. This is, we are told, a singularly dreary tract of country. We pass through it ‘at length’ and if we had the space we could, I suppose, stretch the journey to the house, over several pages.

The first view of the house is from a distance and the narrator concentrates on the feeling or mood the house seems to generate. When he gets closer, in the shades of evening, the house, with its bleak walls, and vacant eye-like windows (this anthropomorphism is important and Roderick Usher makes reference to it, so we’ll make the windows, literally eye-like) is a much more menacing presence.

When the narrator looks at the reflection of The House of Usher in the black and lurid tarn that surrounds the mansion, we learn of “the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows”.

On a symbolic level, the tarn (loch or lake), is likely to be important. The reflection of the house in the inky black tarn prefigures the ultimate fate of the building. Water, is an ancient symbol of purity, fertility (an important theme in this story), it is a metaphor for spiritual nourishment and salvation (Gospel of St. john 4:14) and here it does nothing to alleviate the malignant qualities of the house. In folklore, lakes are two-way mirrors dividing the natural and supernatural worlds. In Egypt the priests of Karnak created an artificial lake, a two-way mirror symbolising contemplation from above, and observation from below, by spirits.

We are not going further than the first page here, but we really have to look at the final page from the Classics Illustrated story above. As you might expect it ended, in the same comic fashion it established with the introduction of the doctor. There is a reference to Roderick ‘loving his sister’ and of him doing ‘no wrong’, and of her killing him. Well, yes, that is one interpretation, and perhaps this is a reference to the Usher family’s incestuous past, but it is stretching matters a little to suggest that Roderick had done “no wrong”, after all, he had deliberately buried his sister in the family crypt, while she was still alive.

I'm not suggesting that every illustrator should have a First in Literature or a nerd-like obsession with literary criticism, or that one should delve into areas like those tackled by Edward H. Davidson who in his book, Poe: A Critical Study, The Fall of the House of Usher, suggests that the text can be interpreted as "a detailed account of the derangement and dissipation of an individual's personality.", I'm simply suggesting that becoming familiar with the text, any text, leads to better interpretation by the illustrator.

With that in mind, my suggestions for anyone tackling a story by Poe, and The House of Usher in particular, are as follows:

it is not always a good idea to confuse the ‘I’ of the story with the author of the story. Drawing a caricature of Poe as every narrator in every single Poe story is annoying.

You don’t have to try to be the new Stubbs, just draw the best horse you can.

The same applies to architecture, it’s a drawing, it doesn’t need to be so perfect you can scale it up and build it for real.

Do read the story more than once until you are confident that you understand it; then you will know which words to remove so that you can replace one language with another – because your drawings should function as a visual language. Don’t just grab a text and highlight settings and dialogue and just slap them on the page.

So, bearing all this in mind here are my first two pages. My third page involves the tarn and by the fourth page my marrator is inside the house, so I'm actually only about two pages behind the Classics Illustrated story and that one just gallops through the tale missing out almost every single important element; so I'm really quite pleased with the way it's going:

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