Sheila Merritt’s Retro Reads reviews books from years past that continue to deserve attention, and are still available to readers. First up is Usher’s Passing.
Usher’s Passing by Robert R. McCammon was originally published in 1984. It is a stellar example of modern horror’s heyday. Set in the period in which it was written, the novel remains compelling; the kind of book that pulls at the reader even when mundane duties demand separation from it. The narrative has a spellbinding premise: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” was not simply a febrile fiction concocted by the master, but rather based on rumors he had heard and subliminally suppressed. The current descendants of the Usher clan have amassed a fortune worth billions of dollars through its armament business. Like their ancestors, these Ushers still suffer from mind-blowing hereditary peculiarities that periodically necessitate taking sanctuary in a “quiet room” devoid of light, and muffled against sound.
Rix Usher has rebelled against a heritage he loathes, living away from his fabulously wealthy North Carolina kin. He is summoned back to the palatial estate called Usherland due to his father’s declining health. Rix is a published horror novelist who has received devastating news from his editor: His latest book doesn’t merit release. In spite of his familial antipathy, Rix recognizes that his lurid family history has publication potential. With a little exhumation he might have a best seller.
Tumultuous relationships abound. Rix’s brother Boone is a hostile sadist. Sister Katt is a business-savvy drug addict. Mother is distant and delusional, and there’s no love lost between Rix and his father: “Walen Usher was the kind of man who insisted that his children make appointments to see him. He kept his sons and daughter on short leashes—until Rix gnawed himself loose, earning his father’s undying hatred.”
A marvelous overlapping storyline involves missing children, a predatory panther-like creature, and a spooky rural legend known as The Pumpkin Man. The Usher line is indeed nasty, and their cohorts through time are vile in their own right. The characters, even those with the most malevolent intent, have facets to their personalities. There’s a “sins of the fathers” thread that impacts many people’s actions. “Helpless in the grip of heredity” is a phrase that is honed to perfection in this tale. The level of luxury that the Ushers have attained is described in envy provoking detail. Rix’s impeccably attired, coiffed, and bejeweled mother is like an objet d’art in a grand museum. She sometimes frets about her progeny, but is obsessed with appearances and what people will think. Her marriage has tarnished her soul.
Usher’s Passing is so finely constructed that it could be used as a textbook for aspiring horror writers, despite the fact that its author is leery of such genre labels. Robert McCammon has received multiple Bram Stoker Awards from The Horror Writers Association, including its Lifetime Achievement Award. Laden with beautifully timed frights, Usher’s Passing remains one of the renowned author’s most memorable works.