Monday, November 5, 2012

Bloodlines

 
Screws from the Lady Madeline Usher’s Coffin (inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 short story, The Fall of the House of Usher) – Antique nineteenth-century poison bottle; antique bronze doorknob; genuine nineteenth-century coffin screws; dried branches; pale pink “coffin-lining” satin ribbon; antiqued silver medallion

The table’s set.

Everyone’s got their own seat at it. Your mother sits there, dad here, grandma and grandpa down that end. Brothers and sisters scattered in-between, and the little kids have got one all their own.

And you?

You’ll take your place where you always have, the far left corner, where the dining room table leg will be jammed between your knees for the next couple of hours.

Comfortable, no?

But there’s not much to be done about it.

It’s tradition.

It’s family.

Everybody’s family tree grows a bit off-kilter. There are a couple of lemons, some nuts, and a few bad apples to be found.

What are you going to do?

Well, you could offer up a prayer of thanks that you’re not related to the Ushers.

Before you ask, I’ll elaborate.

The Ushers were once a fine, upstanding family, one passionately devoted to the arts, one lauded for their dedication to charitable causes. But as the years went by, the Usher bloodline became tainted, poisoned. The roots of their family tree had rot, the branches withered, becoming gnarled and twisted.

And, in time, the Usher coat-of-arms was no longer a shining shield, but one made from strong canvas that tied at the back—a straightjacket.

The last two pieces of bitter fruit surviving from a past proud lineage were a brother and sister—twins—Roderick and Madeline. He suffered from an acute sensitivity of the senses, eating only the most flavorless of foods, wearing only the lightest of fabrics, veiling his eyes from the brightest of glares, guarding his ears from nothing but the softest of sounds.

And she?

She suffered from a mysterious, wasting ailment and frequent bouts of catalepsy.

The Usher manse was just as pitiful, just as musty, mildewed, and moldy as its occupants. Its former glory turned to wrack and ruin, its lush grounds now nothing but a far-stretching, foul-smelling tarn, a veritable swamp of fetid decay.

Evenings there must have been so jolly, what with Madeline slipping in and out of consciousness upstairs while Roderick entertained, strumming his lute, singing such cheery ditties as “The Haunted Palace” or reading from his trove of books on humorous subjects—palmistry, satyrs, a treatise on the Spanish Inquisition.

In short time, Madeline shuffled off this mortal coil (lucky her), Roderick himself tightening the coffin screws. She was then relegated to the catacombs below, while Roddy took to wandering the corridors above, a mad hilarity seen in his eyes.

Things came to a head a week later. A monstrous storm assailed, the wind, the thunder shivering the walls of the already crumbling abode, the lightning illuminating the hideous lagoon from which a putrescent fog oozed. The rooms rang with strange noises, scrapings, scratchings, that culminated in one frightful shriek.

The storm blew open the door and upon the threshold stood…

…Madeline Usher, in a blood-stained shroud.

She had been interred while still alive, during one of her cataleptic fugues.

With a cry, she fell upon her brother, both of them hitting the floor as corpses—real ones, this time.

Outside a sanguine moon watched as the mansion split in two and collapsed, and the House of Usher sank forever into the dark waters of the tarn.

And you thought your family had problems.

Anyhow, tonight’s narrative has been brought to you by this month’s sponsor, the fervid imagination of American writer, Edgar Allan Poe. Entitled The Fall of the House of Usher, it was first published in the September 1839 issue of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. Ripe with atmosphere, with pervasive themes of melancholia, insanity, possible incest, and a great big dollop of taphophobia (the fear of being buried alive), it has come to be considered the epitome of the horror master’s genius, his ultimate tale of terror. It has been dissected and psychoanalyzed as a story of self-fulfilling prophecy (Roderick believes he is sick, so he is; he believes he will bury his sister alive, so he does), of opium abuse (Roderick’s hyper-sensitivity and hypochondria are both withdrawal symptoms of opiate-addiction), of an examination of the human psyche (with the house as the Unconscious, its central crack representing the duality of Roderick and Madeline), and of simple murder (Roderick bumps off Madeline and is tortured by his own remorse). It has also been suggested that Roderick, Madeline, and the House of Usher itself, share a common soul, so when one dies, they all must.

The sinister air of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher has gone on to infect the creativity of other artists. Claude Debussy never finished his 1917 opera based on it; seventy years later Philip Glass composed his own, as did progressive rock singer/songwriter, Peter Hammill in 1991. It’s been the inspiration for a 1976 pop instrumental from the Tales of Mystery and Imagination album by The Alan Parsons Project, while in 1984 Russian musician Nikita Koshkin composed a solo classical guitar piece entitled, “The Usher Waltz.” Filmmakers obsess over the story, with no fewer than a baker’s dozen of global movie and television adaptations known—from Jean Epstein’s 1928 silent art deco tour de force to Roger Corman’s 1960 visually influential version with Vincent Price to Jan Švankmejer’s 1980 stop-motion animation retelling, using everyday household objects in place of actors. Spanish schlockmeister Jesús Franco filmed it in 1983, British enfant terrible Ken Russell in 2002. In 2012, Canadian Joseph Naylor helmed the most recent remake, Usher’s Legacy, transplanting the story to contemporary Vancouver and making the Usher siblings two brothers who are just a little too close for comfort.

So, when you’re seated at the table this year awaiting the turkey and trimmings, take a good look around. Crazy may be a relative term—a true “relative” term, but think about this—maybe you’re the nut on the family tree…

Happy Thanksgiving!
 

 

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