Thursday, October 21, 2010

Usher's Passing

Told you there would be more…

One of Edgar Allan Poe’s most memorable stories was “The Fall of the House of Usher”, a story of the end of a decadent family. In 1984, Robert R. McCammon (Mystery Walk, The Night Boat, They Thirst), a fan of the story wrote a “sequel” to the story called Usher’s Passing, which continued the Usher story into the modern day. Lately, I’ve felt a great dissatisfaction with what has been published of late, and have found better results in revisiting past classics.

In McCammon’s version, the events of Poe’s story were true, but the cataclysm at the end did not end the Usher line. The doomed Roderick Usher had a brother, Hudson, who continued the name, as well as the family business, which is munitions. In the 1980s, the family is ruled by patriarch Walen Usher from the vast family estate Usherland in rural North Carolina. Walen has three children: Boone, a dissolute libertine with a cruel streak, Kattrina, a beautiful model with a drug habit, and Rix, a tortured horror novelist (!) trying to break free of the family name and legacy. Like all members of their family, they suffer from Usher’s Malady, a transient hyper-acuteness of the senses, which can be incapacitating, and ultimately kills them. It is Walen’s time to go, and as he lies dying, his children gather, partly to see who will run the family after him.

The North Carolina woods around Usherland are a dangerous place. Children go missing, taken at harvest time by the Pumpkin Man, and Greediguts, a giant panther that walks on two legs with a tail like a rattlesnake stalks the night. Nearby Briartop is the former home of coven of witches, and the empty (of humans) Usher Lodge is a trap to the unwary. Rix, the black sheep (or, maybe, in this case the white sheep) of the family, tries to discover the secrets of his family and his evil ancestors, and in so doing, learns just what is going on with the strange events in the area. He will not like what he finds, and it all comes to a head at Halloween.

This was McCammon’s sixth published novel, and the second after he found his true voice (McCammon has been famously ambivalent about his first four books, although I think they are just fine.). With the Pumpkin Man, Greediguts, witches, and other supernatural elements, there would seem to be too much going on for one novel, but McCammon has the talent to handle it. As always, he does a good job of bringing the characters to life, and essentially updating the Poe story to the modern age. There are many other allusions to the works of Poe (“The Bells”, “The Raven”, “A Cask of Amontillado” and others) for those who are interested in such things.

McCammon was probably second only to Stephen King among horror writers in the 1980s, his name fading a bit in the consciousness of horror readers after he took a decade off from writing. The best of his work, and Usher’s Passing is in the upper tier, probably just a little lower than Swan Song or Boy’s Life, easily trumps almost anything being published today (at his worst, he is at least the equal of recent output). Usher’s Passing has not lost any of its strength, and is an excellent novel to read at Halloween (or any other time.)

1 comment:

Jim Mcleod said...

Good book, if only we could go back to the quality of the good old days.