‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ and the Enduring Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe

The Fall of the House of Usher dark house

Mike Flanagan’s The Fall of the House of Usher is the horror maestro’s latest modern reimagining of a literary universe. With The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, and The Midnight Club, he paid tribute to Shirley Jackson, Henry James, and Christopher Pike, respectively. For this horrific outing, though, he’s turned his attention to Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of the macabre and created a series that reflects the horrors and injustices of modern times. Then again, Flanagan’s gory chiller is a reminder that some of these injustices have existed since Poe’s 19th-century heyday.

Existence was a cruel and challenging experience for Poe. The legendary author lived most of his life on the brink of poverty and had to rely on his writing to make ends meet. He excelled at his studies but was kicked out of his schools for incurring massive gambling debts and disobeying authority figures. Throughout his life, he had a disdain for the capitalist machine, corruption, and society’s gluttonous elites. He’d been chewed up and spit out by the society he lived in, but he put this seething contempt for the real world to good use.

This distrustful worldview is reflected in some of Poe’s writing. Take The Masque of the Red Death, for instance, which epitomises the notion of human selfishness at its most despicable. It tells the story of Prince Prospero and his wealthy friends as they throw a ball to celebrate not perishing to a plague that’s killed the common folk, only to fall prey to a mysterious spectre on that fateful night. The core message of the story is that no one can escape death; however, it’s also an indictment of a privileged world that shows no empathy towards those who’ve been dealt an unfair hand. 

And then there’s Hop-Frog, which revolves around a jester of small stature who must endure abuse at the hands of a corrupt king. The tale ends with the titular jester convincing the king and his royal cohorts to dress up as orangutans before he douses them in flames – a conclusion that symbolises society’s less fortunate taking on the rich establishment if there ever was one.

Mike Flanagan imbues his own tribute to Poe’s work with the author’s sensibilities. As such, he’s managed to create a series that Poe may have written if he were alive today.

According to Flanagan, his take on The Fall of the House of Usher is a “story of American madness” whose central family is an amalgamation of the Kardashians, Trumps, and the Sacklers. Poe’s original tale is modest compared to the Netflix reimagining’s sprawling narrative. Instead, it’s used as a framing device to chronicle the rise and fall of the Usher family, whose contributions to the pharmaceutical industry are wrapped up in corruption, exploitation of the poor, animal abuse, and the destruction of the environment. What’s more, the Ushers aren’t above committing murder or throwing their own under the bus for their own nefarious gain.

Of course, the series takes many creative liberties with Poe’s literary canon. The original Poe story only boasts three characters – Roderick Usher (played by Bruce Greenwood in the series), Madeline Usher (Mary McDonnell), and an unnamed narrator – as they pass the time in a dark, crumbling house. Netflix’s The Fall of the House of Usher, however, adds Usher children, heirs, and offshoots to the mix, each of whom is an avatar of unchecked exceptionalism and moral decay. Furthermore, they’re all named after characters from other Poe tales, and some of their personalities are aligned with their counterparts in the original source material from which their names have been lifted. C. Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly) – literature’s first detective – comfortably takes the place of the unnamed narrator, but he’s no friend to the Usher patriarch in this tale.

Flanagan’s series weaves multiple Poe stories into its overarching plot to tell a biting tale about society’s worst traits. “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and its death-by-primate premise is a fitting metaphor for an episode that explores the ills of animal abuse in contemporary science. Meanwhile, the Netflix series’ rendition of “Masque of the Red Death” replaces the original story’s upper-class ball with a techno sex party that’s populated by obnoxious social media influencers, celebrities, and sports stars. To be fair, this actually looks like a fun night out until the attendees are forced to shower in an acidic liquid that sprays from the walls and melts their skin off.

The Fall of the House of Usher boasts many gruesome and tragic moments, which are true to the vision of Poe. However, the series also embraces the influential author’s twisted sense of humour, which is often overshadowed by his more macabre and horrific reputation. Poe’s attitudes towards the things he perceived as awful inspired some dark material, true, but he observed the world around him with a sense of ghoulish bemusement as well. A good example is Never Bet the Devil Your Head, Poe’s hilarious response to critics who deemed his stories “immoral.”

The Usher clan is deliciously terrible in The Fall of the House of Usher; for example, their immediate reaction to young Prospero Usher’s (Sauriyan Sapkota) death is to exploit it for public sympathy and improve their mainstream image. What’s more, Madeline – who’s portrayed as deviously Machiavellian throughout the series – is also more concerned about the company’s stock prices falling than she is about her nephew’s demise. Elsewhere, Victorine Usher (T’Nia Miller) kills her own lover after the latter objects to her signature being added to a forged document. Napoleon Usher (Rahul Kohli) is arguably the most fundamentally decent member of the family, and he’s a drug-addled cat abuser (can you guess which Poe story informs his death?).

The closest the Ushers come to displaying a modicum of human decency is when Victorine encounters a woman who needs a new heart but can’t afford the medical costs. Luckily for the latter, Victorine needs a test subject to use as a guinea pig in an experimental trial, which could go terribly for all she knows. The storyline is both an indictment of America’s profit-centric healthcare system, as well as a fitting tribute to Poe’s hatred of exploitation and wealth inequality.

The Fall of the House of Usher is a reminder that Poe’s ideas and themes remain relevant and urgent today. Maybe that’s a poor reflection of the world we’re living in, but there’s no denying it’s a testament to the great author’s prophetic wisdom. If only he knew how enduring his legacy would be when he was around and churning out stories as a means to survive all those centuries ago…