Published in Journal of Popular Literature Issue #4, Fall/Winter 1990
The Call of the House of Usher:
The Poe Element in
Robert McCammon’s Usher’s Passing
Alabama horror writer Robert R. McCammon is the author of nine novels, including New York Times bestsellers Swan Song, Stinger, and The Wolf’s Hour. The characters in McCammon’s Usher’s Passing are the present day descendants of Edgar Allan Poe’s time-honored House of Usher, and it is “the Poe element” in the novel that I will examine here. McCammon’s novel is more than just a good horror novel; it is also a game between author and reader, a scavenger hunt not only for subtle allusions to the life and works of Edgar Allan Poe, but also for echoes of Poe’s favorite themes and literary devices, all employed in such a way that they become McCammon, never merely derivative of Poe.
McCammon opens the novel with an appearance from Poe (who is, appropriately, drinking amontillado) but quickly moves the story into the twentieth century and introduces the reader to Rix Usher, a fledgling horror writer who suffers, as do his father Walen and his brother and sister, Boone and Kattrina, from Usher’s Malady, the same strange disease that manifests itself in the acuteness of the senses and that has aroused so much critical attention since Poe’s Roderick Usher suffered from it generations before. Critical analyses of Poe’s work have supplied support for various theories as to the meaning and/or cause of the malady: Roderick has been seen as the tortured artist, overly sensitive in his reactions to all that he confronts (Garmon); the malady has been seen as the physical and mental manifestation of incest, as the Usher family is said to have lain in a “direct line of descent” (Marsh); its symptoms have also been quite convincingly identified as those of the sufferer of vampirism (Bailey). Although McCammon’s Ushers are military arms dealers and seem to have little other than the house, the name, and the malady in common with Roderick and Madeline, Rix, like his great-great-great-great uncle Roderick—and like Poe—is a tormented artist.
McCammon’s Ushers don’t actually live in the same Usher house that Poe’s Ushers lived in, although the original house, fissure, tarn, and all, does still stand behind the Gatehouse that the modern-day Ushers occupy. Several details that are easily overlooked or forgotten by the casual reader of Poe’s story are quite important to McCammon’s. Poe only mentions the armorial trophies in Roderick’s hall, the Usher’s “passionate devotion to the intricacies… of musical science,” and the fact that the subterranean vault in which Madeline’s corpse was placed was once apparently “a place of deposit for powder, or some other highly combustible substance.” These details take on a much greater significance as McCammon’s tale unwinds.
Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” provided the bloodline for McCammon’s Usher family, but McCammon’s allusions to Poe’s works are certainly not limited to this one story. Poe’s poem “The Bells” is brought to mind as the book opens with thunder echoing “like a bell” and a cabbie muttering “Hell’s bells.” As the story progresses, we encounter a Black Cat named Greediguts that stalks the woods around Usherland, and a girl named Raven who shares with Rix an interest in the “curious volumes” of Usher family lore. And at the risk of carrying the allusions to the point of absurdity, I must also add that the name Rix’s sister, Kattrina, who is ultimately killed by Greediguts, is remarkably similar to Catterina, the name of the cat that Edgar and Virginia Poe had during the time that Poe wrote “The Black Cat” (Bonaparte). Rix thinks of the Lodge as “a haunted palace,” Raven reads a book about the powers of the “evil eye” (which, in several Poe stories, doubles as the “evil I”), and there is even the letter that is “purloined” by Edwin Bodine from the Usher house and given to Wheeler Dunstan, Raven’s father, whose book about the Usher family is entitled “Time Will Tell the Tale,” a play on Poe’s title “The Tell- Tale Heart.” In the innermost pit of the Usher Lodge is the prototype of the latest Usher weapon: Pendulum, a sonic weapon which combines the design of the clock and the science of music to be more destructive than any weapon before it has been. “Time” in the form of the Pendulum, inspired by Rix’s great-grandfather Ludlow Usher’s fascination with clocks does indeed “tell the tale” that is at the heart of the mystery surrounding the Usher family: the family feeds, figuratively and literally, on death. They not only provide the arms that are used in war, but also feed on the flesh of children that are kidnapped, taken to the Lodge and slaughtered to become the meat in the Welsh stew the Ushers eat in order to stave off the ravishes of Usher’s Malady.
Much has been written about Poe’s knowledge of classics—literature and language—and his delight in wordplay. Just as his “house of Usher” refers to family and edifice, the “masque” in “The Masque of the Red Death” was originally spelled as “mask,” and, of course, serves both meanings in the story. The masonry pun is key to “The Cask of Amontillado,” and the list continues. Likewise, McCammon delves into a bit of wordplay in Usher’s Passing. In the section of the novel entitled “Raven,” we find Rix eating “ravenously,” and, even more direct is the play with words when Rix’s initial thought upon meeting Raven’s invalid father in his motorized wheelchair is that his first name. Wheeler, is appropriate.
McCammon’s interest in masks, a theme he further develops in Swan Song, provides another connection to Poe’s work, as well as another example of wordplay. In Chapter Two, Boone wears “his toothy grin like a mask” and Margaret’s face itself, having been lifted and heavily made-up, is, in a sense, also a mask. Chapter Three then opens with “a uniformed nurse with a surgical mask” offering Rix a mint-scented mask to help cover the odor of the dying Walen. As the novel progresses, the theme becomes clearer that the Ushers hide behind their masks as did Prince Prospero’s guests in “The Masque of the Red Death.” Just as Poe’s Prince Prospero tells himself that the external world can take care of itself, Hudson Usher built the Usher estate so that his ancestors could live long, full lives in spite of Usher’s Malady. But the Ushers are no more able to keep death out the Usherland than was Prospero able to escape the fate of all men. In fact, they are slaves to death.
The book’s very title. Usher’s Passing, has double meaning; at once referring to Walen Usher’s death and to the horrible legacy that is passed from Usher to Usher, generation after generation. And in its main character’s name, there is a clue that McCammon is indulging in a bit more wordplay, an example of wordplay which serves as a nice transition to a look at a favorite theme of Poe that surfaces in McCammon’s work also, that of the doppelganger.
For almost any one of Poe’s tales there exists at least one critical interpretation in which the theme of “the double” is emphasized. In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” there are many doubles: Roderick and Madeline are twins, Roderick and the house are counterparts, Roderick and the narrator are alter-egos. In other stories, William Wilson meets his double at boarding school; Ligeia reappears in Rowena’s body; Fortunate parallels Montresor in various ways; the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” so strongly sympathizes with the old man he kills that some critics believe the old man is actually the narrator’s own conscience or “all-seeing eye.” Likewise, in McCammon’s book, the name Rix takes on double significance in light of the fact that Robert McCammon’s name “outside of his studio” is Rick, which is also spelled out in the last four letters of the name Roderick. Another of example of doubling in McCammon’s novel would be the passing of the ebony cane, the Usher scepter, to Rix and the passing of the magic stick from the Mountain King to Newlan Tharpe, and the decision to choose good or evil that each heir has to make.
McCammon also offers some variation to themes that are often found in Poe. Instead of the Ushers, themselves, being incestuous, as is hinted in Poe’s story, McCammon’s Mountain King reveals that he and his sister Lizabeth (whose skeleton he still sleeps with—perhaps a vague allusion to the Freudian view of Poe’s Oedipal desires for his mother, also named Elizabeth?) are the biological parents of the man who was Newlan Tharpe’s father. Whereas in Poe, Usher’s malady, at times, exhibits symptoms similar to those of vampirism, in McCammon, the Ushers sustain themselves with cannibalism—explaining in an unexpected way—the several references early in the novel to Boone’s pointed teeth. And in some way similar to the accusations that Poe alludes to literary works that don’t exist, McCammon alludes to a book by Bill Creekmore, one of his own characters from Mystery Walk.
As an epigraph to his novel McCammon quotes Roderick Usher saying, “I dread the events of the future.” Horror fans, I believe, will agree that they at least look forward to the future works of Robert R. McCammon.
- Bailey, J.O. “What Happens in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’?” American Literature 35 (1963).
- Bonaparte, Marie. The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-Analytic Interpretation. London: Hogarth, 1949.
- Garmon, Gerald M. “Roderick Usher: Portrait of the Madman as an Artist.” Poe Studies 5 (1972): 11-14.
- Marsh, John L. “The Psycho-Sexual Reading of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’ ” Poe Studies 5 (1972): 8-9.
Marian Carcache teaches at Auburn University, AL. This essay is reprinted with the permission of the author.