It’s clear when Pink Floyd’s rollicking protest song “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” begins to play in the opening moments of The Fall of the House of Usher that viewers are in for a wild ride.
The song itself came on the radio in 1979, an important year for the ill-fated Usher siblings in this iteration of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story. Its lyrics are emblematic of a complicated childhood, which Roderick and Madeline Usher contended with in their youth. It also feels like an ironic and pointed choice — a conspiratorial wink and a smile from Mike Flanagan to his audience — when you consider Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” a story in which a man traps one of his rivals behind a brick wall in the basement of his home.
[Ed. note: The rest of this post contains spoilers for all of The Fall of the House of Usher.]
Every Usher character name has a hidden meaning
The Fall of the House of Usher is packed to the brim with moments like these. Some are small details, easily missed if you’re not looking for them, and others appear on screen with the force of a wrecking ball. The first episode alone, appropriately titled “Midnight Dreary,” is a veritable minefield of Gothic Easter eggs. Roderick’s doomed offspring — Camille, Prospero, Tamerlane, Victorine, Frederick, Napoleon, and even his granddaughter Lenore — are all named after characters who appear throughout Poe’s poems and stories. Even Roderick’s daughter-in-law’s name, Morella, is a reference to a Poe’s short story that shares the same name. Many have theorized over the years that the name “Morella” comes from “great morel,” another name for the poisonous plant belladonna, or deadly nightshade — and that plays an important part in Morella’s story arc.
The names Flanagan has chosen carry weight throughout the show and connect back to Poe beyond the ill-fated House of Usher. Roderick and Madeline’s attorney is Arthur Pym, who also happens to be the lead in Poe’s only completed novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. The original version of Arthur and Flanagan’s both travel to the edge of the world and back on a strange and dangerous ocean voyage.
Auguste Dupin, here playing the role of the house guest who visits the Usher siblings in their decaying family home, originally shows up as a detective in three of Poe’s stories and helped pave the way for the detective novels we know and love today. The Big Pharma company that Roderick owns is aptly called Fortunato, which happens to be the name of Montresor’s dimwitted victim in “The Cask of Amontillado,” and the drug it produces is Ligodone — what could be a blink-and-you’d-miss-it reference to “Ligeia,” a story about a mysterious temptress that works well in the grander scheme of things as a metaphor for addiction. And, what’s more, it’s later revealed that the street name for Ligodone is “Monty.”
Gone are the stereotypical trappings of a Gothic tale — the gabled houses and candlelit corridors that people often expect when they hear the name Poe — replaced by brutalist architecture, AI text generators, workout videos, and neon lights. Here the heart in “The Tell-Tale Heart” is no longer a human organ, but a synthetic prototype that maddeningly ticks away just out of sight.
Bringing Poe’s real story to Roderick Usher
It’s enough to make even the biggest fan of Poe’s work feel like their head is spinning, but the lore and Flanagan’s world-building never lose sight of their inspiration. As the show progresses it becomes increasingly easy to picture Flanagan and his team conspiring over a big board covered in red string. Perhaps the most interesting part of The Fall of the House of Usher though is its relationship to Poe’s real life. Flanagan embraces the source material with open arms, but it’s not just a story about the Usher family and their fall from grace, or even Poe’s extended body of work; it’s an obsessive love letter to the author himself, and the convoluted and heartbreaking legacy that he left behind.
Keen-eyed viewers — or those who spent any amount of time studying 19th-century American literature — will likely recognize a number of the characters who appear throughout the show as people who played an important role in Poe’s day-to-day life. Early on, viewers are briefly introduced to Roderick and Madeline’s unstable mother, Eliza. She shares a name with Poe’s own mother, who tragically died of tuberculosis when he was very young. Roderick’s children are vitriolic toward his current wife, Juno, who is notably younger than he is. This is no doubt a reference to Poe’s 13-year-old first cousin who he, quite horrifyingly, married. It’s purported that despite many romantic flings throughout his life, she was his only spouse. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — whom Poe accused of plagiarism and picked many a fight with — makes an appearance as the man Eliza Usher is having an affair with at the top of the show, as does Rufus Wilmot Griswold, the literary critic who had a hostile rivalry with Poe, in the form of Roderick and Madeline’s nemesis.
It’s a bold choice to say the least, and the outcome is a strange ouroboros — an Edgar Allan Poe-shaped snake eating its own tail as the story progresses at breakneck speed. The show is so deeply entrenched in the history surrounding him and his life’s work that it’s almost jarring when Roderick begins to recite some of Poe’s more popular works under the guise of wanting to be a poet in another life.
Poe and his Annabel Lee
Arguably one of Poe’s best-known and most hauntingly beautiful poems is “Annabel Lee,” and it’s clear that Flanagan agrees. Like so much of Poe’s writing, the poem explores themes of mortality, grief, and love. In the poem, a nameless narrator — as so many of Poe’s narrators often were — tells readers about the young woman he fell in love with and how even the angels were envious of their bond. His love for her remains strong long after Annabel Lee has passed on.
In The Fall of the House of Usher, Roderick’s first wife, introduced to viewers through a series of flashbacks over the course of the show, is the Annabel Lee of this story both literally and figuratively. This version of Annabel Lee is a voice of reason and moral compass throughout the course of the series and, thus, doesn’t stick around for very long. She’s thankfully spared most of the violence and torment that Roderick endures, and the memory of Annabel and her kindness haunts him well into his old age. Poe’s poem is a testament to how love can continue on even if the relationship itself has come to an end. While it’s clear that Roderick and Annabel can no longer be together, they still care for one another deeply and mourn the safe and happy life that they could have had.
Annabel Lee isn’t the only woman in Roderick’s life who earns herself the recitation of one of Poe’s better-known poems. His granddaughter Lenore does too. Much later in the season, during one of the most emotionally devastating moments of the show — reader, I cried — Roderick shares a few choice lines from “The Raven” with Dupin. While Lenore (who many believe represents Poe’s wife) appears in more than one of his poems, “The Raven” best exemplifies the grief one feels when they lose someone close to them.
What is dead may never die
While The Fall of the House of Usher is a modern spin on a classic Gothic tale, there are a few things that it still has in common with its source material: the aforementioned feeling of grief after a great loss and the pervasive presence of death. Both elements were massively influential to Poe and his writing over the years, as evidenced in most of his work. In the grand scheme of things, death can be considered both a blessing and a curse, but here it is considerably more horrific, as the dead don’t always stay dead.
At the beginning of the show, Roderick and Madeline’s mother digs her way out of her own grave to exact revenge, and as the story progresses, Roderick is haunted by various ghastly apparitions of his own children. These moments beg the question: Are the ghosts that Roderick’s seeing real, or just violent and uncontrollable manifestations of his overwhelming grief and sense of guilt? Viewers are left to ponder over each visitation — not unlike the narrator of “The Raven” in his chamber — until the grisly final moments of the show.
This is a Gothic tale for a new generation of horror fans: those who live in a world that is radically different from the one Poe existed in, where a synthetic heart and an AI replicants of human consciousness are increasingly a reality. While these high-tech details make The Fall of the House of Usher look different than a typical Gothic tale, at its core it still manages to feel the same as its source material. Over the years, “The Fall of the House of Usher” has been told time and time again through different mediums. None of these adaptations have been as expansive or audacious as what Mike Flanagan has created, though. The result, like so much of Flanagan’s work, is hypnotic to watch: a modern, sexy, and ultra-violent dream within a dream that pays homage to the work that it was inspired by and paves the way to introduce those who might not be as familiar with Poe’s writing to his poetry and stories.