Janice was a pretty girl in my high school journalism class. We got along really well but I don’t think we could have ever gone beyond friendship because we were both shy and, while I wouldn’t say two shy people shouldn’t date—I’m sure there are those who’ve made it work—Paula Abdul was all over the radio and MTV at the time telling us opposites attract.
We did get to spend a lot of time talking, though, since the journalism class was a dud. There’d never been a school paper before and the teacher was a football coach who, after a week, quit trying to make one happen. So we spent a lot of time sitting around and Janice and I got to know each other because we were the only two kids in the class who weren’t football players. She was, as I said, pretty, but she also had a dry sense of humor which I really liked. Her family had moved from North Dakota which she described as “the place where people go to get away from other people.” I never did ask what brought her family to Nashville, but I like to think her parents were like her: shy but nice, and maybe they wanted to be around other people.
What we really bonded over, though, was Poe. I told her I’d read a lot of Poe stories but there was one big one that, for reasons I couldn’t explain, I’d avoided.
“Oh,” she said, “The Fall Of The House Of Usher is my favorite. I hope if you do read it you’ll enjoy it. I think you’ll be pretty shocked by the ending.”
I read it that night. I loved it, although, even for Poe, it’s pretty weird. As in most of his stories the tension builds slowly: nothing much happens, but the details and subtle suggestions are thick. Then there’s the shocking climax followed by a conclusion that’s set up in the first paragraph. It packs in more of Poe obsessions than any other story: a decaying house, a decaying family, a premature burial, strange paintings, supernatural nature, and a twin brother and sister who are maybe a little too close, which just makes it even weirder that Poe married his thirteen year-old cousin. There’s even a story-within-the-story of a knight fighting a dragon, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say the house–the mansion, really–collapses at the end. The house of Usher literally falls. There is no message, no meaning, because Poe hated didacticism in stories.
The heavy atmosphere and luridness are probably why Roger Corman chose it for the first of his series of Poe adaptations, and it remains the second best (the kooky humor of The Raven with Vincent Price and Peter Lorre going at it will always make it my favorite, but that’s another story), and why it’s one of Poe’s best-known tales.
Janice and I never formally said good-bye when the school year ended. We just went our separate ways. It hadn’t occurred to me in the journalism class that she was a sophomore while I was a junior, and we didn’t see each other except in passing the next year. After my first year of college I came back to Nashville just in time to go to my old high school’s graduation ceremony. After it was over I was walking down the sidewalk in the darkness when I heard Janice say my name. She was still in her graduation robe. We chatted a bit and she introduced me to her parents who seemed like quiet but very nice people. Then we said polite goodbyes and went in opposite directions, never seeing each other ever again.