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The Late Review: The Fall

9th Feb, 2022

Author: Peter Tennant

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First published in Great Britain in 2014, Bethany Griffin's The Fall (Indigo Books pb, 420pp) is inspired by the work of Edgar Allan Poe. It gives us the back story to Poe's classic tale "The Fall of the House of Usher", and it also offers an alternative slant on the end of that story.

The story is narrated in the first person by Madeline Usher, incidents in her past juxtaposed with those in the present day, with each chapter headed up with the character's age - these range from 'Madeline Is Nine' to 'Madeline Is Eighteen'. Light is also thrown on events in Usher family history by extracts from 'The Diary of Lisbeth Usher', whose exact relationship to Madeline is not revealed until late in the book. This format causes problems, in that the voice of Madeline aged nine doesn't sound especially different from that of Madeline aged eighteen, and over the course of time her attitude to the House changes, first seeing it as a protector and then as an oppressor, so that the reader has to be constantly checking to see which Madeline is speaking at any particular point in the narrative. In general terms, there can be advantages to this method of using flashbacks, but Griffin doesn't adequately exploit them, and for the last hundred and fifty pages abandons it altogether, instead giving us a linear account of what is happening to Madeline from age seventeen on, and my feeling is that it would have worked better if she'd used a linear approach to narrative from the start.

We learn about the history of the Ushers, Madeline's relationship with brother Roderick and her parents. We learn about the family illness/curse and how it affects Madeline, and the doctors who treat her as if she is a laboratory rat existing simply for their convenience, physicians who I found far more sinister than the House - there are unsettling suggestions of sexual abuse to their practices - especially Dr. Winston, who at first seems to be Madeline's friend. We learn about the House itself, the history of the place and the malevolent intelligence that seems to infest it. We witness incidents of treachery and murder, true love and friendship. We see Madeline's affection for a canine companion supplied by the house and what it costs her.

Griffin is excellent at portraying the confused mind state of a young and then teenage girl, one who has the misfortune to be born into a truly dysfunctional family. And she brings to life the House, an edifice that is tottering on its last legs and yet defies the passage of the years, a labyrinthian building with catacombs and attics, and hanging over all the spectre of time and family inbreeding, while at the same time leaving the reader to decide if the House really is a malevolent entity or if this is simply a reflection of Madeline's changing attitude to the place where she lives and from which, finally, she wishes to escape. In many ways the book brings to mind the early Gothic novels of people like Walpole and Radcliffe, books that to my shame I've only read about and never actually read, though they seem so entwined with the horror genre's history that it's impossible to be unaware of their influence, the shadow they cast over all that has come since. The Fall has the same thematic concerns and stage trappings, given its preoccupation with crumbling mansions and diseased family lines, desolate places and mouldering corpses, but is written with a modern sensibility. It's an engaging story, but all the same there is very little here that is new, that isn't implicit in the Poe template, so perhaps the readers who get the most out of this book will be those unfamiliar with the story on which it is based. Ultimately it may be a book to read for the journey rather than the destination.




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