Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Rise of the House of Usher

Usher's Passing by Robert R. McCammon (1984): There's more than a whiff of the Southern Gothic about the writing of McCammon (an Alabama native). It doesn't come out in his prose, which has remained sturdy and serviceable throughout his career, but in the plots and characters, which can sometimes jostle with one another in odd, baroque ways. There's about three novels' worth of plot and characters in Usher's Passing. It's about half-a-novel too much, but I was never bored.

After a prologue that establishes Edgar Allan Poe as having based "The Fall of the House of Usher" on a real American family of arms dealers, the novel leaps to the (then) present day of 1984. The patriarch of the Usher family is dying of a peculiar, terrible ailment that only Ushers get. Two of the three heirs are jostling for position, while the third, horror novelist Rix, really just wants to be left alone as he mourns the recent suicide of his wife.

But Rix will come home to Usherland, the Usher family complex that somehow keeps the Ushers unnaturally young-looking so long as they live on its grounds.

Once home, Rix begins to work on a secret history of the Ushers in the hopes that such a book about the immensely secretive clan will jumpstart his faltering writing career. Meanwhile, in the poverty-wracked homes that surround Usherland, a boy searches for his stolen brother. A mythical being called the Pumpkin Man has supposedly been stealing children from the countryside surrounding Usherland for generations. A mythical, giant snake-panther hybrid called Greediguts has been terrorizing the woods for just about as long. A mysterious old man with what appear to be magical powers lives in the ruins of a devastated, forgotten town whose crumbled walls are branded with Hiroshima shadows, at the top of the area's highest hill.

Something lurks inside the original, now-abandoned, gigantic, Winchester-House-like Usher mansion -- abandoned decades ago but still dominating the landscape. Sometimes people who go into the mansion never come out. There are stories of strange earthquakes, comets falling on the mountains, people possessed of magical powers. The fate of the Usher patriarch is always terrible. And the current Usher patriarch is secretively creating a new, devastating weapons system for the U.S. government.

And that's the set-up. Mostly. There are a couple of other subplots that ultimately feed back into the main narrative. McCammon gives us a wealth of creepy historical incident and a number of sharply drawn, sympathetic characters, most prominently Rix and the boy searching for his brother. It all fits together nicely, this story of Gothic horror and nuclear terror and family secrets. Recommended.

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