Books to Screen: Poe, Mike Flanagan and homes haunted by what’s within - Hindustan Times
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Books to Screen: Poe, Mike Flanagan and homes haunted by what’s within

Dec 12, 2023 09:00 PM IST

The Fall of the House of Usher may borrow its title from Poe’s 1839 short story, but the story itself is a springboard for a complex intertextual palimpsest

Big multigenerational family dinners can be a recipe for disaster, more so in these divided times. At least be glad you never had to attend one as cursed as the last get-together of the Ushers, a dysfunctional dynasty of drug makers who are slowly ruined by a curse of their own making. The evening begins with a cocktail of bad blood and an appetiser of smouldering sibling resentments. Served as main course is the emotional violence of suspicion: someone within their own ranks is believed to be an informant in the criminal case against the family. Scooped out as dessert is intimidation in the guise of vested interest: fresh NDAs are forked over so no one can testify in court. As could be expected, family dinner ends with a bitter aftertaste. A fortnight later, the patriarch Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood) is at a funeral, mourning the untimely deaths of his six heirs, each of whom have been picked off one by one, Final Destination-style.

Fall of the House of Usher: Multigenerational family dinners as a recipe for disaster (Netflix) PREMIUM
Fall of the House of Usher: Multigenerational family dinners as a recipe for disaster (Netflix)

“The haunted house is a psycho-geographical nexus where the past and the present intersect.” (Amazon)
“The haunted house is a psycho-geographical nexus where the past and the present intersect.” (Amazon)

Netflix’s new Gothic horror series The Fall of the House of Usher may borrow its title from Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 short story, but the story itself is a springboard for a more complex intertextual palimpsest. Creator Mike Flanagan builds a porous hub where many of the greatest hits of the horror maestro converge. At the aforementioned funeral, for instance, the priest turns not to the Bible, but to Poe for words of solace. He begins with a verse from the poem For Annie (“Thank Heaven! the crisis -- The danger is past... And the fever called ‘Living’, is conquered at last”) and ends with an extract from the short story The Imp of the Perverse (“We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss — we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably, we remain.”)

For horror readers, the pleasure is two-fold: first is in recognising each text, name and Easter egg sewn up together; second is in reinteracting with classics and being surprised afresh by how they illuminate contemporary horrors. Flanagan takes on the role of a ferryman guiding us through the dark waters of Poe’s macabre imagination. His manic yet focused exercise in reimagining Poe is not too different from how he approached Shirley Jackson in The Haunting of Hill House and Henry James in The Haunting of Bly Manor. The strength of each adaptation lies in the power of the haunted house in which it is set. For what is scarier than the most sacrosanct site of safety being violated by horrors lurking within? At the heart of such stories are traumatic memories and ruinous family secrets hidden away in the attic or in the basement, whose slow decay point to a domestic and/or moral rot. The cracks in the walls make the cracks within the family tangible. The haunted house is a psycho-geographical nexus where the past and the present intersect. If Hill House is personified as an active agent of evil that corrupts and wounds the souls that inhabit it, the House of Usher is like a mirror reflecting Roderick’s troubled conscience. Poe maintained a deliberate vagueness in his story about the two siblings, Roderick and Madeline, who succumb to an ancestral curse and get swallowed up with the House. The House is described as an extension of Roderick’s mind anguished over whatever unatoned sin, “a mind from which darkness, as if an inherent positive quality, poured forth upon all objects of the moral and physical universe in one unceasing radiation of gloom.”

Many have read the sin as that of incest. Flanagan sees it different as he draws his horrors from the dark-energy grid of Big Pharma. Roderick and Madeline (Mary McDonnell) are here reimagined as two morally bankrupt honchos of an empire built on others’ pain. Just as the Sackler family-run Purdue Pharma once did with OxyContin, its fictional analogue Fortunato Pharma deceptively marketed a highly addictive painkiller as a blockbuster drug by persuading doctors to overprescribe. When the painkiller contributed directly to an opioid epidemic and killed thousands of people each year, the company pooled its PR resources into shifting the blame on the patients and all those who got addicted. The Ushers embody a capitalist class whose greed is so insatiable it consumes them and the whole system. How else do you diagnose such an illness besides as cancer? Purdue Pharma was dissolved under a bankruptcy settlement and its billionaire owners may yet receive full immunity from civil suits. Every industrialist, politician and tech bro who ever got away without paying for their crimes — House of Usher suggests — made a literal bargain with the devil. In the sixth episode, the Usher lawyer Arthur Pym (Mark Hamill) discovers photos of Donald Trump, Mark Zuckerberg, Rupert Murdoch, the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts, all posing with the devil, having sold their souls so money and power would course through their veins.

Roderick’s doomed bloodline. (Netflix)
Roderick’s doomed bloodline. (Netflix)

Greed, envy, gluttony, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath, each of the seven sins embodied by the Usher siblings and their six heirs, meet their just deserts. Roderick and Madeline are ambitious because the two didn’t grow up rich in a cocoon of wealth and privilege. By contrast, the six children — Roderick has fathered in and out of wedlock — seem less empowered, more haunted by an unrelenting anxiety over losing their wealth and privilege, so much so that it strains their relationships. All the money in the world cannot stop them from vying with one another to win the favour of their father. It stands to reason each pays for their sins as well as those of their father’s. Not just their names, but also each of their death’s design are all inspired by Poe’s work. The youngest, Prospero (Sauriyan Sapkota), loves to party and wishes to open a chain of night clubs where wealthy partygoers can indulge in any vice without worrying about consequences. As a preview, he throws a rave at an abandoned Fortunato facility — which should recall The Masque of the Red Death where a prince throws a masquerade ball while plague ravages the country. The revelry on both occasions turns fatal upon the arrival of a partycrasher wearing a red robe and a skull mask. Flanagan’s cover version of The Murders in the Rue Morgue sees the youngest daughter Camille (Kate Siegel), a cut-throat spin doctor, get mauled by a rogue chimpanzee while looking for dirt on her sister Victorine (T’Nia Miller) at her medical research facility.

Victorine may be a doctor but she isn’t exactly a bastion of scruples. If it will please her dad, she will cut every corner — from testing on animals to risking the lives of unwitting patients — in her clinical trials to develop an experimental cardiac tech. Guilt over a needless act of violence manifests as the mechanical click of a Tell-Tale Heart. Leo (Rahul Kohli), is a video game mogul with a drug addiction who is haunted by a “Black Cat” only he can see. The eldest daughter, Tamerlane (Samantha Sloyan), is a wellness guru so convinced her subscription service Goldbug will change everyone’s lives she loses touch with reality — made final when she is impaled by shards of a mirror. The eldest son Frederick (Henry Thomas), is an entitled jerk whose insecurity ultimately puts him face to face with a blade swinging back and forth towards him, bringing to mind The Pit and the Pendulum.

Edgar Allan Poe (Everett Collection / Shutterstock)
Edgar Allan Poe (Everett Collection / Shutterstock)

The short story, The Fall of the House of Usher, begins with a letter ushering an unnamed narrator into Roderick and Madeline’s creepy old house. Flanagan’s eight-part series begins much the same way. Only Poe’s narrator is substituted with detective C Auguste Dupin (from The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Purloined Letter), who is recast as an assistant district attorney who has been trying to bring the Ushers to justice for decades. Overcome with guilt and grief over his doomed bloodline, Roderick has invited Dupin over to confess his many sins. This fireside chat in a crumbling living room on a midnight dreary traces the timeline of the rise and fall of the Usher family: how Roderick and Madeline survived their mother’s death, the humiliation at the hands of their father, and all the hardships that came with being poor and orphaned; how the two lied, conspired and backstabbed their way to the top; how they chained their rival and walled him in, brick by brick (like in The Cask of Amontillado); how they made a deal with the devil and let their next generation and countless others foot the bill; and how each of the Ushers met their end. That Roderick’s granddaughter Lenore (Kyleigh Curran), the only Usher who hasn’t sold her soul, too succumbs to the curse, asserts the cruelty of Roderick and Madeline’s short-sighted greed.

While Flanagan matches Poe’s gift of mapping the tormented inner landscapes of his characters onto morbid settings, he can’t match that skin-crawling sense of dread, considering every Usher is damned (read: scripted) to die at the end of each episode. The common denominator in each tragedy is a shape-shifting harbinger of death, named Verna (Carla Gugino), who has returned to collect the debt owed by Roderick and Madeline for their devilish deal from decades ago. When Verna isn’t played by Gugino, she takes the form of what she is an anagram of: a raven. The recognisable star of Poe’s most famous poem symbolised the unending torment of grief. Here it is reshaped to symbolise the unending torment of guilt, which in itself is a corollary of grief plaguing Roderick to self-reflect and question his past choices. When the show flashes back to memories of his tender-hearted first wife Annabel Lee (also named after a Poe poem), it feels like he is haunted by a vision of the more decent man he could have been.

The overloaded pastiche feel of Flanagan’s Poe retake may sometimes jar on both readers and viewers. If the show luxuriates a little too much in small details, it is to be expected given the wealth of material Flanagan is working with. In an 1839 letter, Washington Irving had once described one of Poe’s stories as erring on “the side of luxuriance” and laying on “too much colouring.” By following suit, Flanagan’s show gains more than it loses, as Poe’s spirit emerges in all sorts of unexpected ways. Where the two minds mesh is in their shared idea of how the things that scare us most are the things we find upon looking inwards rather than outwards. Our houses are haunted by our own inner demons.

Prahlad Srihari is a film and pop culture writer. He lives in Bangalore.

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