“The Growth of the House of Usher”

My look at the fiction in Stableford’s Sexual Chemistry collection concludes.

Review: “The Growth of the House of Usher”, Brian Stableford, 1988.

Cover by Bruce Hogarth

This story stands at the head of Stableford’s Tales of the Biotech Revolution, a series of as many as 60 works (my bibliographic research has not established an exact number) of various lengths. As the title would suggest, it is an extended takeoff and inversion of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”. After all, Stableford substitutes “growth” for “fall” in Poe’s title.

The opening echoes Poe’s syntax and tone:

It was a dull and soundless day on which I approached by motor boat the house which my friend Rowland Usher had built in the loneliest spot he could find, in the southern region of the Orinoco delta. 

The home of Poe’s Usher was ancestral, but Stableford’s Usher is building his.

The edifice which Rowland was raising from the silt of that great stagnant swamp was like nothing I had seen before, and I am morally certain that it was the strangest building ever envisaged by the imagination of men. 

The house is like a “black mountain” without windows (standard for new buildings in this future), no crenellations, no towers, no balconies.

. . . there is surely some sense in which one of the true architects of that remarkable tower was a long-dead 19th century fantasist, even though the other was a 22nd century civil engineer.

Rowland had always wanted to construct a House of Usher that could not and would not fall into ruin. 

Rowland summoned the narrator to his home with talk of “nervous agitation and spoke of ‘mental disorders’ . . . a kind of joke on Poe.” The two men are old college friends from the days when they studied civil engineering which, in this future, uses “Gantz bacteria” which extrude a kind of cement that can hold together local building materials from any location. That development kicked off the building off cities in the poorer parts of the world. 

Both men wanted to take the possibilities of Leon Gantz’s work further, to incorporate living systems into buildings: tap roots to supply water for buildings and organic systems to take care of their inhabitants’ waste. Rowland has put these ideas into practice in his home raised from the mud of the Orinoco. Though it reminds the narrator of a giant termite mound (there’s no room for classical beauty or symmetry in Usher’s vision), its walls are actually more porous than expected, move like a “sluggish protoplasmic flow”. Inside the house are curving corridors black and smooth-walled. 

The narrator hasn’t seen Rowland in seven years, and the man does not look well. He’s thin and now white-haired. He stumbles enough over words that the narrator thinks he may be intoxicated, but he doesn’t see any wine about. The narrator asks if Rowland is ill.  Yes, he is, and, despite many tests, computers have been unable to “determine the biochemistry of Rowland’s malaise”. It seems to be a genetic disorder that killed his father and Rowland’s “beloved sister Magdalen”. The narrator is surprised to learn Rowland had a sister since he’s never mentioned her before. She was a year older than Rowland and died when she was 17. Females seem to die of the disorder quicker. Rowland’s father died at age 40. Rowland is 47.

’It is an Usher complaint, like the one which afflicted my famous namesake. Did I not know he were a fiction, I would suspect a line of actual descent.’

I think I might have been alarmed if Rowland had told me that his sister were still alive, and I had seen her flitting ephemerally through the apartment just then. This would have been one Poesque parallel too many for my tired friend to bear. 

Rowland’s disease affects his brain and his speech suffers as does his sight. That’s why the lighting all over the house is dimmed. Rowland invited the narrator to his home to explain the work he has been doing while the narrator was helping Africa’s poor. Rowland doesn’t have long to live. He’s left a record of his entire house’s design and building, but there’s a lot of information in the world that never gets used. He needs the narrator to disseminate and champion his work after he’s gone. The narrator agrees to that. 

Rowland weakens and goes to bed, apologizing and telling the narrator he has the run of the house. The narrator perceives a vibration in the “dark, warm walls” of the house that reminds him of “lashing rain and howling wind”. On the other hand, it may be some internal process of the “living fabric” of the house. 

The next day, Rowland explains more about his house. While he has no doubt that houses will one day be “truly sophisticated living beings”, his home isn’t. It’s modelled on a lowly scavenger. It takes the organic debris from the Orinoco and uses it to grow and build the structure rather like a coral. He’s always been interested in animals that are genetically programmed to build complex structures, and he’s tried to do that here.

Engineered, giant larval forms of insects chew through the structure for the placement of various utility conduits. They are genetically locked into that form and not able to reach adulthood. Rowland has long been interested in the “metamorphic potential” of insect larvae and vaguely says he’s been carrying out “unorthodox experiments” on them. 

The narrator again pleads with Rowland to seek medical help. Nothing can be done, repeats Rowland. Some of his sister’s cells have been stored and so will his when he dies. Researchers will one day find out the cause of his disease. But his name won’t be remembered for that. It will be for his house which will last through the Third Millennium, a prospect that pleases his “Romantic imagination”. Rowland and his sister will have one of the last and best tombs from the age of “mortal man”. 

Rowland is getting worse and again goes to bed early leaving the narrator to peruse his library and find, not unexpectedly, works by William Blake, Lord Byron, and, of course, Edgar Allan Poe. The narrator does not sleep peacefully given the events of the day and his bedtime reading. They induce visions of Poe’s Conqueror Worm. The dream is so disturbing, in fact, that he wakes up and goes to get a drink of water. 

In the corridor outside, he hears a sound and looks to see, in the dim light, a human figure – what seems to be a naked girl of fourteen or fifteen leaving Rowland’s room. The narrator wonders if he’s seeing things and actually trembles. “I, a scientist of the 22nd century, was infected by the morbidity of the Gothic Imagination!” 

The next morning the narrator still wonders how much of what he remembers from the night before was just a dream. But he doesn’t ask Rowland if he’s haunted by his dead sister. 

Rowland takes him on another tour of the house. They go into the cellars to see the vats and labs where Rowland modifies Gantz bacteria. He sees more of Rowland’s “living machines” developed from insect and the “biological batteries”. Rowland than waxes on his vision of an ecosystem of living houses replacing the animal and vegetable kingdoms of Earth and that, eventually, sexual reproduction will strictly be the province of humans. The narrator isn’t enthusiastic about the last bit, but he does find Rowland’s general vision “attractive”. 

At dinner that night, Rowland, fearing he’s close to death, tells him more about Magdalen. She was the focus of a bizarre project by their father. Magdalen was a joyful child, and her father was determined, knowing that her life would be short, that she should know the “most complete”, the “most joyful” life ever led. There was no point in sending her school. Rowland was also roped into the project as her younger brother. In retrospect, Rowland wonders why his father chose to have children knowing he was a carrier of a fatal hereditary disease, but he doesn’t doubt his father’s love for his children. 

Magdalen was isolated from life’s dark side, and her father was determined she should know the pleasures of “sexual love”.

  . . . the responsibility was given to me – the old taboos against father/daughter incest still have some power while brother/sister intercourse is widely accepted. 

The result, Rowland claims, was that he felt closer to Magdalen than any man could be with a woman. While some have claimed that, in Poe’s story, the Usher siblings are incestuous, Stableford makes it quite explicit in his retelling. 

And more bizarreness is to come. Rowland kept some of his sister’s oöcytes from Magdalen’s womb with the idea of cloning her. Ultimately, though, he decided not to. However,

 a maggot or caterpillar can carry within it genes which can encode an entirely different creature.

Rowland started to experiment in modifying his many insect larvae to have the biomass of an adolescent girl and resemble his dead sister. 

I regret to say that I have not succeeded in producing one which bears more than a passing resemblance to my beloved Magdalen, despite using her own genetic material, but my quest has always been a hopeful one and I have derived some comfort from it. 

Then Rowland goes into a coughing fit and dies. Stableford has inverted Poe’s story here. Poe’s Usher entombed his sister alive. Rowland entombs, metaphorically, part of his dead sister in living beings. 

Rowland’s body is put in a telemedicine machine. Via its link to Harvard University, his death and the cause for it is confirmed. The narrator finds Rowland’s will and initiates probate proceedings. 

More Poesque nightmares follow when the narrator goes to bed. He dreams of placing Rowland’s body in a tomb and then hearing a scratching at his door. Then he wakes. 

There is a scratching at his door, and, opening it, he sees one of Magdalen’s insect “phantasms”, a creature with no organs for digestion or for sex. Short-lived like a mayfly, it exists only “to cling and caress, soothe and be soothed”. It dies before the morning. 

The next day, the narrator takes Rowland’s body into a chamber where Magdalen is also buried.  Their bodies will decay and become part of the house. While the siblings and building don’t share a single soul as in H. P. Lovecraft’s interpretation of Poe’s tale, they will share biological matter. In this tale, genes perform the work of a limited reincarnation. There is no room for the idea of an immaterial and immortal soul here.

You can, in the end of this story, see Stableford’s interest in Decadent literature and “literary Satanism”, the latter a types of work that, as I understand it, seem to celebrate emancipation from the prohibitions of religious faith and find no fault in seeking “sinful” pleasures. Here that would not only be the Ushers’ incest but Rowland’s entire project embodied in his home. His is a vision of supplanting nearly the entire natural world with his own creation, a creation which molds life, an intrusion into an area previously thought to be solely a Divine prerogative. 

The first House of Usher – that shameful allegory of the disturbed psyche – was burst asunder and swallowed by dark waters. In stark contrast, Rowland’s house still stands, soaring proudly above the tattered canopy of the twisted trees. It is still growing . . .

Rowland contrasted his own house with Poe’s imaginary one, damning the fictitious original as a typical product of the 19th century imagination and its myriad demonic afflictions. His own house . . . might not even be confined by a thousand years, but might go on for ever, into that far off Golden Age when the entire ecosphere of his planet – and who knows how many more? – will be subject to the dominion of the mind of man. 

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