Saturday, February 12, 2011
Usher’s Passing By Robert R. McCammon
By Robert R. McCammon
Robert McCammon takes Edgar Allan Poe’s legendary atmospheric short story, The Fall of the House of Usher and build upon it, adds to the legend of the Usher family, and weaves a tale that would have made the grand master of the genre proud.
The story opens in the 1840s as the patriarch of the Usher family searches New York bars for the elusive Poe. Finding him drunk and at work at a bar, Hudson Usher, brother of the tragic Roderick and Madeline Usher, who so feared being buried alive, afflicted with the malady peculiar to the family. He berates Poe for bringing disrepute to his family and publicly disclosing the nature of the Usher family malady.
We then flash forward to the 1980s when the Ushers are American arms manufacturers and among the wealthiest families in America. They live on a large estate known as Usherland, upon which sits two dwellings. One is a mansion where the current patriarch, Walen Usher lies dying of the Usher malady which is the slow deterioration of the body – much like living putrification – and a heightening of the senses that makes all stimuli painful. Doctors and nurses attend to him in a heavily insulated, isolated room.
The other building is known as The Lodge and it is the monolithic, ancient home of the Usher clan, no longer in service and boarded up. It is feared by the Usher family and surrounding residents of Usherland who believe it to be haunted. Boarded up and abandoned, the ancient mansion looms over the Usher family.
Rix Usher, the youngest of the living Ushers and family black sheep, is summoned home by his older brother, informed that his estranged father is dying of the Usher malady. Still distraught over the suicide of his wife and the failure of his latest book, Rix agrees to return home to learn what will become of the Usher family fortune and who will be the heir to the leadership of Usher Armaments, the nation’s leading weapons systems makers.
Adjacent to Usherland is Briartop Mountain, home to a community inhabited by a strange, insular people. These people live in terror of an ghostly entity known as The Pumpkin Man and his faithful servant, a black panther called Greediguts. Legend has it that the Pumpkin Man steals children for his unholy purposes and takes them back to The Lodge.
Newton Tharpe and his brother Nathan are two teenage brothers who live on that mountain and have been raised to fear the Pumpkin Man. One day, while hunting along a trail, New falls into a pit of brambles and is trapped there. Nathan goes for help. New, trapped and afraid, feels magic within himself and uses that magic to free a knife from a long dead hunter who met his doom under similar circumstances. New frees himself and runs home, but Nathan has disappeared. Search parties of mountain inhabitants search for the boy, but nothing is found of him.
Rix returns to Usherland to find that his father is indeed dying. Walen Usher castigates Rix for leading his life away from Usherland and publicly disparaging the family name and company. His rivalry with his obnoxious older brother, who is a gambler, philanderer and lout, and his brother's wife, a drunken and overly amorous wife, Puddin’, is renewed. Boone wants control of Usher Armaments when Walen dies and is convinced that Rix is his rival for the family fortune.
Rix finds that the ever faithful family servant, Edwin and his wife Cass still buttle for the family, which pleases Rix. He has always been fond of Edwin and recalls that it was Edwin who entered The Lodge when Rix was a child and saved him when he became lost in its vast, shifting corridors and endless rooms.
As drama builds in the Usher household as Walen deteriorates and begins to decay as he is still alive, New worries about his brother and is convinced that the Pumpkin Man has got him. What’s worse is that New feels a strange entity calling out to him from The Lodge, beckoning him to come in and join it in the Usher ancestral home.
Rix learns that his father has ordered thousands of pages of ancient documents be retrieved from The Lodge for research on a new, secret weapons system he is building for the Pentagon known as The Pendulum. Rix decides to relaunch his writing career by writing a history of the Usher family and Usher armaments. He learns that the publisher of the town newspaper, a lifelong enemy of the Ushers, is working on a similar project, Rix decides to reach out to him to see if they can combine their efforts.
He meets Raven Dunstan, reporter for the town paper and daughter of the publisher. Raven has been to Briartop Mountain and talked to Newton Tharpe whose mother forbade him from telling her anything. In her research, she has heard the legend of the Pumpkin Man, Greediguts, and an entity known as the Mountain King – a strange hermit that inhabits the ruins of an ancient town at the very top of the mountain.
Rix is eager to see her father’s manuscript, but he is not obliging, not trusting anyone with the name of Usher. Rix learns that the publisher has gained access to many family documents and many Usher family secrets. Rix promises to help him get more documents in exchange for being allowed to collaborate on the book and to read the research he has completed so far. Mr. Dunstan says he will take it under advisement after Rix produces some secrets.
Rix begins the task of researching his family’s history. As he reads ancient journals and business records, he finds a tale of egomania, extreme eccentricity, and complete disregard of human decency. The Ushers have produced guns, cannons, bombs, missiles, and weapons systems for more than a century that have killed hundreds of thousands if not millions.
The one object that is constant through the Usher family is a talismanic cane, now borne by his dying father, that has an onyx shaft and a silver lion’s head. At one point in the late 19th century, the cane was lost to the family when one of the Usher wives, being blackmailed for having once worked as a prostitute, steals the cane and turns it over to a pimp and gambler. Alas, the cane finds its way back to the Usher family when one of the ancient patriarchs finds the man in possession of the cane and kills him aboard a sternwheeler during a card game.
As the days pass, life in the Usher mansion becomes more difficult for everyone. The smell of decaying flesh is pervasive. Walen Usher orders all electricity in the house shut off because he can hear the humming of the current passing through the wiring. Boone’s wife, drunk and horny, keeps making passes at Rix. Rix’s mother continues her constant criticism of Rix for his shunning of the family. Rix’s sister, Katrina, is a heroin addict. Nobody is sure who will be heir to the family throne. Rix does not want it. Katrina, a professional and successful model, doesn’t care, and Boone is convinced that Rix is conspiring to take it from him.
Rix learns that the power behind the Ushers may very well be embodied in that cane. One evening, while his father berates him, Rix picks up the cane and feels a surge of power and lust for more power and money. He quickly discards it, disgusted with the thoughts that have entered his head.
Meanwhile, New continues to battle the voices in his head that demand that he “come home” to The Lodge. One night, while entranced by the voices, New starts the family truck and starts to head down the drive from the shack he shares with his mother. The Mountain King stands before him, preventing him from leaving and breaking The Lodge’s spell over him. Before anything can be explained, Greediguts attacks the Mountain King and mortally wounds him. New picks up the Mountain King’s cane and strikes Greediguts on the head. He feels power surge through him and Greediguts is badly wounded with a burn on his head. New discovers the cane has powers that make him able to compel people to do his bidding. He orders his mother to accompany him while he drives the dying Mountain King to a doctor.
Raven and Rix meet at the doctor’s office where the Mountain King lies dying. He summons New and Raven to his death bed so he can relate the tale of Briartop Mountain, the evil that once resided there, and the source of power of the Ushers and the people of Briartop. Raven learns that dozens, perhaps hundreds of children have disappeared without a trace from Briartop Mountain over the last century.
At the Usher House, events unfold to assure that Rix is the heir to Usher Armaments. Boone is lured to The Lodge by a mysteriously open door. Boone has spent many hours walking the first floor of the cavernous mansion and has made a map of it. He enters with confidence. However, he finds that The Lodge’s architecture is organic and the house schemes to force him further into the depths of the mansion where he meets Greediguts. Katrina meets with misfortune as well, encountering the Pumpkin Man in the family garage.
After leaving the doctor’s office, Rix goes to meet with the publisher of The Democrat to discuss new information he has obtained he is certain relates to the Pendulum Project and to make a final demand to see the manuscript. Wheeler Dunstan will not let him see it and a fight ensues. Rix overpowers him and grabs the manuscript. He finds that the man has written nothing but gibberish. There is no book at all. The man is insane.
New and Raven leave the dead Mountain King at the doctor’s office and return to New’s mountain cabin. There, they resolve that they must go into The Lodge to unravel the final mystery of the Pumpkin Man and Greediguts.
Rix returns to The Lodge to confront his father with what he has learned and demand the details on the Pendulum Project. He gets there and finds his father near death. After they argue, Rix snatches the cane and grasps its power. His father dies, protesting that the cane was not ready to be passed. He learns who the Pumpkin Man is and is compelled to accompany him to The Lodge to learn the final Usher family secrets.
Raven and New enter The Lodge through a tunnel leading from a gatehouse. Soon, Greediguts falls in behind them, following them from a distance, driving them forward and cutting off their escape. They move deeper into The Lodge where they meet Rix, accompanied by the Pumpkin Man. There, Rix, Raven, and New learn the cause of the Usher malady, the true nature of the power of The Lodge and the Usher Family, and the horrible secret of Briartop Mountain. Finally, Rix is able to behold the Pendulum and see its terrible power unleashed in just small doses.
New, using the power within the Mountain King’s cane, overpowers the Pumpkin Man and they escape. Pendulum is unleashed and The Lodge collapses in on itself, its power and the power of its landlord destroyed.
This was the first Robert McCammon story I ever read and I was immediately hooked on this southern American author. I’ve since read everything he’s published. He never wrote anything else quite like Usher’s Passing, which is a gothic tale of an ancient family set in 1980s America.Nonetheless, the time I spent consuming his body of work was well worth it! I've said it before, McCammon is that rare author that has never written a bad book!
McCammon takes Poe’s eerie, atmospheric story and builds upon it, creating a fine homage to one of the pillars of genre fiction. The Poe story is thin on action and contains no backstory on the Ushers or the peculiar malady that afflicts them. McCammon supplies this and rereading Poe’s classic tale after reading McCammon’s novel improves the experience of reading that 160 year old story.
McCammon builds a plausible, modern story around the Usher family and creates a gothic tale of horror set in modern North Carolina. McCammon tells his tale deftly with action, reflection, flashback, and drama all brought forward in proper proportions. His writing of the Usher Malady and the panic that it induces reminds one of Guy de Maupassant.
For me, the writer who can write a scene so compelling that I am able to recall it vividly years later is the hallmark of a great writer. Stephen King did this for me in The Stand with Larry Davenport’s trip through the Lincoln Tunnel. McCammon did this for me as he described how the Usher family descendants and their servants fled from the Great Chicago Fire.
The events themselves are an obscure clue in the story. But the narrative brings to life what was a very real and horrific event. McCammon describes the streets full of panicking residents. Passage from the city to the safety of the Lake Michigan is clogged with fleeing pedestrians, people on horseback, and horse drawn carriages. Buildings explode as the firestorm moves toward the lake. Ashes and cinders fall all about the people, setting them on fire. I’ve read a few historical accounts of the fire, but none bring them to life the way McCammon does in Usher’s Passing.
As good as this book was, I’m not sure I would rank it in his first tier of work. McCammon has written fantastic mainstream fiction like Boy’s Life, post-apocalyptic horror in Swan Song, and historical fiction in Speaks the Nightbird and The Queen of Bedlam that all surpass this fine novel.
For fans of Poe, this book is a must read. It is not a ripoff of Poe. It is a homage. It adds depth to one of Poe’s finest stories. For McCammon fans, we know he's written better, but this one is worth reading for its entertaining story.