Laura Lippman on Edgar Allan Poe

Master of horror
Laura Lippman

Photo by Jan Cobb


Edgar Allan Poe—Podcast Transcript

Charles Keating: 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?

Laura Lippmann: "This is so scary that I'm not sure you should read it.  And if you do read it, read it before the sun goes down.   And if you read it late at night I won't be responsible for the dreams you have." 

Jo Reed: That was actor Charles Keating reading from and mystery writer Laura Lippman talking about Edgar Allan Poe's tale of gothic horror, "The Fall of the house of Usher."

Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how Art Works. I'm your host Josephine Reed.

Born in 1809, Edgar Allan Poe is a pioneer science fiction and detective fiction as well most famously in gothic fiction. While today, we tend to overlook his considerable ability as a poet; in his own time, he was best known as the author of "The Raven" which had the same popularity as a hit song.  Poe's mastery of the short story is often overlooked because of his ability to terrify his readers with his macabre tales. But Poe's influence on modern fiction is pervasive. As one critic wrote, "Poe came along and made literature safe for ghosts and murderers and crime-solving know-it-alls...for the subconscious mind, in all its murk and madness." And no where is the murk and madness of the subconscious more apparent than in Edgar Allan Poe's classic story, "The Fall of the House of Usher." For those of you who haven't read the story recently, here's a thumbnail sketch with apologies to Poe.

"The Fall of the House of Usher" begins with an unnamed narrator, who has been summoned by a letter from his boyhood friend whom he hasn't seen in many, many years. This is Roderick Usher. Roderick lives in the wilderness in a grand and decaying house alone with his sister Madeline. Both suffer  from various unspecified physical and mental ailments. During the course of the narrator's visit, Roderick informs him that Madeline has died and she must be entombed for two weeks in a family crypt in the house. So the narrator  helps Roderick inter Madeline, sealing her in a coffin behind a bolted iron door. But Madeline is not dead and the horror of that premature burial intensifies until the house literally can no longer contain it.  "The Fall of the House of Usher," which a selection of The Big Read Program, has become the model for the gothic horror stories.

With Halloween on the horizon, it seemed a particularly good time to revisit "the House of Usher." Joining me in a discussion of this great short story is mystery writer and mutiple Edgar Award winner, Laura Lippman.  Aside from being a great mystery writer, Laura lives in Baltimore, the city perhaps most associated with Edgar Allan PoeLike many of us Laura first read Poe in high school, but a decade or so ago, she began to re-read Poe in a very different light than she had as a young reader.

Laura Lippmann:  Well, one thing that I didn't appreciate when I read Poe as a kid is that his technical mastery is- is quite astonishing.  There are things that Poe did with language, particularly his poetry, that someone who's not trained as a literary critic.  I don't have the vocabulary to describe it, but I certainly could recognize it and appreciate it.  Poe is a really wonderful poet.  I think that gets a bit lost.  I think people who only know "The Raven" tend to not recognize that, but I found the poetry quite wonderful.  And what I found interesting in the stories that I read and reread, I didn't reread everything.  I haven't read everything, to be fair.  But in the stories that I read and reread, I began to notice that Poe is not particularly interested in motive.  Motive is a much more modern concern in the crime novel.  I mean, he did create one of the great, original detectives in "Murder in the Rue Morgue," and he would write these horrible tales of violence and crime, almost always from the point of view of the killer.  And he seldom provided any reason or rationale for why the killers behaved as they did.  In both "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Cask of Amontillado," two of his most famous stories, there is no reason other than the fact in "The Tell-Tale Heart" that he finds his neighbor irritating.  In "The Cask of Amontillado" the line is "I had borne many insults, and he knows them well."  That's not it word for word.  And I thought, well, that's very interesting. The stories are, of course, often concerned with the supernatural, a sense of the Gothic that is not always part of modern crime fiction.  And those are all the things that I noticed as I went back into them.  And yet I found them remarkably accessible to a modern reader and reading something like "The Fall of the House of Usher," the only thing that sets it aside from a modern tale of horror may be the length at which Poe describes certain things.  There is a lot of information given about the house.  So things perhaps are in this, what you would think of as a pre-cinematic age, there is more attention paid to creating a visual sense of what is happening, more description.  But other than that, it's really easy for a modern reader.  I don't think most people would- would find it difficult at all to read Poe, even now.

Jo Reed:  I'd like to talk about "The Fall of the House of Usher."  And I- I think I'd like to enter it through atmosphere, because certainly in that story, but in all of Poe, from the poetry to his short fiction, he is a master of creating atmosphere I think. 

Laura Lippmann:  There's a very telling line early on in "The Fall of the House of Usher" in which the narrator describes the sense of dread and horrible gloom that he feels as he approaches the house. 

Charles Keating reads from "The Fall of the House of Usher"... 
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.

And I think there's something that is so key to Poe and his mindset, because he adds that, and- and there was no pleasure in it, as there often is with that kind of feeling.  So he's admitting to the fact that we like on some level to be scared, that we might have certain romantic attachments to dread and gloom.  But this is a house, a place, an atmosphere in which the gloom is so pronounced. It's just so dark.  I mean, there's this description of the house itself that on one level, on the individual level, it appears, you know, the pieces appear to be rotting, and yet the whole is quite magnificent.  He talks about how the wood looks as wood that's been sealed up, yet is still worm eaten.  That's an incredible image.  And that's all in the first two pages, I believe. 

Jo Reed: I think in "The Fall of the House of Usher" again, as in many of Poe's works, the sense of claustrophobia is really telling.  And for me what's so surprising about "Usher" is that, in fact, he's talking about and describing a very large house, which seems as close as a tomb.

Laura Lippmann:  Yes. Poe was fascinated with entombment, the problems of being buried alive. I have not satisfactorily really been able to determine how real a threat that was in the mid-nineteenth century.  I can't believe it was at such a level that it would preoccupy.  It's, you know, this is far from the only story in which this appears in Poe. We have "The Cask of Amontillado" in which a man is sealed up, is buried alive.  And in that case, there is no punishment for that crime.  The killer gets away with it.  And we have "The Fall of the House of Usher."  There is a story "Berenice," which happens to be one of Poe's early stories, one of the few works that he wrote and completed in his time here in Baltimore, is utterly grotesque, because it not only features a woman who is buried alive, but the story asks us to consider that her cousin falls under some sort of psychotic spell, opens her grave, and removes all of her teeth even as she lives.  It is one of the most disturbing things I've ever read in my life.  And once again, in "The Fall of the House of Usher," we have someone being buried alive and I've been thinking a lot recently, knowing we were going to have this conversation, about two what extent Roderick Usher knew that.  It doesn't seem to make sense.  I'm- I'm careful.  I try not to project too much onto text.  I really try to take them at what is on the page and not create suppositions or create a position and then try to defend it through increasingly kooky theories. There are things in the text that clearly argue for Roderick Usher behaving as any grieving brother might. He wants to put his sister in a tomb because he feels that whatever illness she suffered from is one that might be of interest to doctors.  He's, he's attempting to preserve her body, and asked his friend to help him, you know.  And the friend says that the blush that he sees on her cheek and her chest is commonly associated with the kind of malady that she has.

Charles Keating reads from "The Fall of the House of Usher"... [page 329] 
Having deposited our mournful burden upon tressels within this region of horror, we partially turned aside the yet unscrewed lid of the coffin, and looked upon the face of the tenant. A striking similitude between the brother and sister now first arrested my attention, and Usher, divining perhaps my thoughts, murmured out some few words from which I learned that the deceased and himself had been twins, and that sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature had always existed between them. Our glances, however, rested not long upon the dead -- for we could not regard her unawed. The disease which had thus entombed the lady in the maturity of youth had left, as usual in all maladies of a strictly cataleptical character, the mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the face, and that suspiciously lingering smile upon the lip which is so terrible in death. We replaced and screwed down the lid, and having secured the door of iron, made our way, with toil, into the scarcely less gloomy apartments of the upper portion of the house.

Laura Lippmann: These details argue that Roderick Usher is doing something without any hidden or ulterior motive.  The sister has died.  He creates a temporary tomb.  But then we have the information late in the story that he has known for days that she is alive and trying to get out. Why doesn't he go to her?  Why doesn't he, at the very least, investigate these odd premonitions he has about the sounds coming from his sister's temporary tomb?  Why does he sit there in the grand living room of the House of Usher, and ask his friend to read him a story in hopes that he will be distracted and wait until she appears on the doorstep?  And this is very mysterious.  I've thought, I'm not sure what kills Roderick Usher.  Why does he die?  His sister comes in.  She's got blood all over her.  She's apparently in a quite weakened state, having been in a tomb for almost two weeks.  And she dies and he dies.  They go down to the floor together.  He's been quite ill, too, but is it a heart attack?  Does she do something to him?  Is she more than a frail human being?  I mean, I really welcomed the opportunity to go back and read this story, because since I've been thinking about it in preparation for this interview, I have found much to think about, and I found myself left very queasy by this story.  I don't think Roderick Usher is simply a well meaning, grieving brother.  
Jo Reed:  I think what's interesting is how much Poe leaves to our imagination. He's so purposefully vague that he leaves it to the reader, in some ways, to fill in our own blanks by just leaving these questions, sort of presenting these questions, and then not answering them.  But leaving enough tantalizing hints, I think. 

Laura Lippmann: It's almost as if Poe, who did know a great deal about literary theory, anticipated deconstructionism and and thought this will be a divine joke to play on future literary critics to not give them quite enough and leave them to fight about it. At the very least, I think it is fair to say that the relationship between Roderick and Madeline is unhealthy.  They are unhealthy.  She's dying.  He's quite ill.  He seems to be showing signs of an encroaching emotional illness, mental illness.  She is probably suffering something similar.  They have been driven quite mad by something, by their family's own inbreeding, by a relationship that they should not have had.  Something has gone terribly wrong in "The House of Usher." That's, that's certainly fair to say. 

Jo Reed:  Oh, or the house itself.  He even does leave that strand, that the house itself, it's so malevolent. 

Laura Lippmann:  There's a very, very interesting theory about Poe's death that has been put forward by a Baltimore scientist named Albert Denay.  And it also applies to "The Fall of the House of Usher," according to Albert Denay.  He has long believed and tried to advance the theory that what killed Poe was repeated exposure to gas lighting.  He believes that Poe was a victim of long term carbon monoxide poisoning.  And this was a feature of the gas lighting used in certain American cities at that time.  It's an interesting theory. He would say that Roderick Usher, as described in this story, could be a victim of exposure to gas lighting.  And that all of the symptoms fit. There's so many theories about Poe's death, and there's so many attempts to, again, read between the lines. You know, I don't know what's going on that house.  One of the things that's interesting is why does Usher send her his old friend?  Clearly Usher sees that something is about to happen.  Does he want a witness?  Does he want protection? What is it that is so important to Usher that he reaches out to someone that he knew when he was much younger, someone with whom he had past relatively normal time in the world at large and enjoyed reading and talking about art, and they'd been to school together.  Again, you could argue different sides of it.  You could he knows that his sister means him harm, and- and he wants his friend there as protection.  Or he could simply see that the end is coming and for some reason wants a witness, or thinks that his friend will save him.  I have not idea what it is.  
Jo Reed:  I have no idea why his friend, the unnamed nar- narrator, goes and stays. I think that's the other side of the coin.

Laura Lippmann:  The unnamed narrator in "The Fall of the House of Usher" is a remarkably good sport. He has been thrust into this bizarre household.  I mean, even upon approach it scares him.  His first glimpse of his old friend is agonizing.

Charles Keating reads from "The Fall of the House of Usher"... 
Surely, man had never before so terribly altered, in so brief a period, as had Roderick Usher! It was with difficulty that I could bring myself to admit the identity of the wan being before me with the companion of my early boyhood. [… ] 
He entered, at some length, into what he conceived to be the nature of his malady. It was, he said, a constitutional and a family evil, and one for which he despaired to find a remedy -- a mere nervous affection, he immediately added, which would undoubtedly soon pass off. It displayed itself in a host of unnatural sensations. Some of these, as he detailed them, interested and bewildered me; although, perhaps, the terms, and the general manner of the narration had their weight. He suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses; the most insipid food was alone endurable; he could wear only garments of certain texture; the odours of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured by even a faint light; and there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror. He admitted, however, although with hesitation, that much of the peculiar gloom which thus afflicted him could be traced to a more natural and far more palpable origin -- to the severe and long-continued illness -- indeed to the evidently approaching dissolution -- of a tenderly beloved sister, his sole companion for long years, his last and only relative on earth.

Laura Lippmann: And yet he stays and he kind of ignores the signs that things are getting- or he certainly doesn't complain to- to Roderick Usher about the way things are going.  And that fateful night that everything finally comes together, he's there reading to him. I had forgotten that detail, that there is this, you know, the old story within the story, that there is this old tale of knights and heroism and, you know, seeking to break down the hermit's door by Sir Ethelred and yet in the end he does flee.  He does realize that he can't save anyone in this house, that he can't save the house, that all he can do is run for his life. 

Jo Reed: Fear is such an important factor in all of his work, and "Usher" as well, particularly "Usher."  Can you comment on how he uses it in his work?

Laura Lippmann:  Poe is exceptional at creating an atmosphere of dread.  And when he chooses to, he plunges us into a world where you know something horrible is going to happen.  You simply don't know what it is.  And you made the observation earlier in the interview.  Poe leaves a lot of blank spaces.  Poe is a subtle enough writer that he lets the reader project so much onto the text.  And the primary thing that we project onto Poe's work is whatever we fear the most, you know.  In reading "The House," "The Fall of the House of Usher," I- I tried very hard to- to read it, reread it this time as neutrally as possible.  Don't project your own ideas.  Don't project your own themes.  And yet, uh.. I couldn't help but read it as a story about a woman somehow being dominated, held down, damaged by an unhealthy relationship with a man. I found myself reading it that way.  It's like what is he doing to Madeline, you know.  That clearly comes from my framework.  It something that I write about a lot in my own work.  I write about the relationships between men and women. Somewhat to my surprise, I realize that my work returns again and again to the themes of how dangerous relationships are between men and women, how much rage there is, and how violence is often just below the surface.  And so there I am.  That's just one example.  And this is what I have projected onto the story.  Another reader will project something completely different.  Another reader, if you're a hypochondriac, do not read Edgar Allan Poe.  Edgar Allan Poe who, I think because he, himself, had health issues obviously, had a very young wife, who died early from ill, you know, ill health.  He was clearly obsesses with medical conditions. And I think Poe is just a nightmare for hypochondriacs.  And when I read Poe, I'm glad I'm not a hypochondriac, because another way to read "The Fall of the House of Usher" is what is Roderick suffering from?  You can look at Roderick and Madeline and think what is going on in this house? If a reader came to Poe's work with a predisposition to believe that that family is dangerous, that families are dysfunctional.  Then there you have the proof.  It's the closeness.  It's the intimacy of family that somehow destroys Roderick and Madeline.  I mean there are as many ways to read this story as there are people who will read it. 

Jo Reed: The other part that I didn't get until I reread it recently, was all of Roderick's art, his guitar playing, his painting, his writing, nonetheless, we think art saves. This just produces more gloom. 

Laura Lippmann:  This is one case where I will go out on a limb and say that I think on some level Poe is writing about his relationship to his art.  Poe is an unusual figure in the nineteenth century in that he wanted to be a full time writer.  That was a luxury very few poets and novelists had.  Writers in the nineteenth century tended to have- either have independent incomes or they had day jobs, you know, as Melville certain did, for example. But Poe wanted to be a full time writer, and at the same time was often incredibly poor because of this. He struggled all his life and he is someone who paid a real price in terms of how he lived and his health, because of his determination to be a writer.  And I think in Roderick we do see that reflected. 

Jo Reed:  Why do you think Poe is still discussed, referenced, so alive in the twenty-first century? 

Laura Lippmann:  I think it's because he really hits that that sweet spot of universal fear and dread.  I think it's because the world changes, but it never gets less frightening.  Technologies evolve. Developments are made in medicine.  Nowadays, in the twenty-first century, would Madeline be allowed to drift through the rooms of her home undiagnosed? No. But the diagnosis might be even worse. What we know about her condition might make it more terrifying still. We're isolated in different ways than people were isolated in Poe's time. Yet we 
will never not be fearful.  Fear is part of the human condition.

One of the most amazing things a writer can do is scare you.  It's easy for a movie to scare you.  It has all these tricks.  It has the soundtrack.  It can make things pop into the frame.  It- it can use point of view.  It can use special effects to create quite horrible things.  It can show you an alien bursting forward from some- someone's stomach.  But to scare you and make you apprehensive just through words on a page, just through text, I think that's pretty amazing.  I think writers who can do that are just phenomenal. 

Charles Keating reads from "The Fall of the House of Usher"...

"Her decease," he said, with a bitterness which I can never forget, "would leave him (him the hopeless and the frail) the last of the ancient race of the Ushers." While he spoke, the lady Madeline (for so was she called) passed slowly through a remote portion of the apartment, and, without having noticed my presence, disappeared. I regarded her with an utter astonishment not unmingled with dread; and yet I found it impossible to account for such feelings. A sensation of stupor oppressed me, as my eyes followed her retreating steps. When a door, at length, closed upon her, my glance sought instinctively and eagerly the countenance of the brother; but he had buried his face in his hands, and I could only perceive that a far more than ordinary wanness had overspread the emaciated fingers through which trickled many passionate tears.

That was mystery writer Laura Lippman talking about the Edgar Allan Poe classic short story and Big Read title, "The Fall of the House of Usher" read by Charles Keating.

You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

Excerpt from "The Fall of the House of Usher" read by Charles Keating.

Instrumental sound by Philip Brunelle. 

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Mystery Writer Laura Lippman talks about the terrifying brilliance of Edgar Allan Poe. [29:32]