I’ve always been drawn to mouth horror. Which is to say, I’ve always been very scared of mouth horror. I hate going to the dentist. Iconic TV teeth extraction moments from Alias and The Americans have made a permanent impression on me. When I sent an early draft of my horror novelette Helen House to my editor, he pointed out there were a lot of images about mouths in it. I decided to heighten it in the next draft and gave it a name: mouth horror. I’m often drawn to the things that disturb me most.
October is over, but many of us revel in the horror genre year-round. I find myself still contemplating the brilliant series The Fall of the House of Usher, which I recapped in depth for Autostraddle before becoming sick and passing the reins to my coworker Valerie Anne, who did a fantastic job writing about the final two episodes of the Flanaverse series. In the weeks since I finished watching the show, I’ve been immersing myself in some of the Edgar Allan Poe stories I was previously unfamiliar with, many of which are available for free online. While many have sufficiently haunted, only one has been capable of giving me actual nightmares. And it happens to be the story that likely inspired what was, for me, the most disturbing part of the series.
“Misery is manifold,” muses the narrator of the Edgar Allan Poe short story “Berenice” in its opening line. Poe published the story originally in the Southern Literary Messenger, a periodical produced in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia in the mid 19th century. The story was published in 1835 and was so upsetting and violent that many readers wrote into the publisher to complain. Poe wasn’t exactly known for happy, soft stories, but there was something about “Berenice” that was especially brutal, especially off-putting.
In it, that misery-dwelling narrator Egaeus retells the tale of his own wickedness, following the typical first-person confessional format of a lot of Poe’s work. Egaeus grew up in a gothic mansion with his cousin Berenice, and he becomes obsessed with her teeth. Egaeus has a tendency toward monomania, a focused obsession on objects. After Berenice smiles at him one day, her teeth become that latest source of obsession:
The shutting of a door disturbed me, and, looking up, I found that my cousin had departed from the chamber. But from the disordered chamber of my brain, had not, alas! departed, and would not be driven away, the white and ghastly spectrum of the teeth.
Egaeus and Berenice are to be married, and his obsession with her teeth only deepens, especially when she contracts a mysterious disease that impacts everything but. Berenice dies and is buried. Egaeus awakes from a disorienting trance (“It seemed that I had newly awakened from a confused and exciting dream”) to discover a small box beside him. Though inconspicuous, the box fills him with dread: “Why then, as I perused them, did the hairs of my head erect themselves on end, and the blood of my body become congealed within my veins?”
A servant enters to inform him there’s been a huge mistake. Berenice was not actually dead (Poe does love a live burial). Her body has been found, still alive but brutalized. Her teeth are missing. Egaeus gradually realizes blood and mud on his clothes. When he opens the box, we already know what will be in it, but the reveal shocks nonetheless. There are Berenice’s teeth, all 32 of them.
In The Fall of the House of Usher, Frederick Usher — eldest of the six demonic Usher children — develops his own form of monomania not for his wife Morrie’s teeth but for her phone. It isn’t her primary phone, the one he’s used to. It’s a phone he has never seen before. It was found at the crime scene where Morrie was the sole survivor of a tragic “accident” where hundreds were killed at a sex party due to toxic, flesh-burning water pouring out of the sprinkler system, though we come to understand this event wasn’t an accident but rather fate, part of the comeuppance for a deal with the devil made by Usher patriarch Roderick many years before. Morrie lived because the “devil” — Carla Gugino’s shapeshifting Verna, who sometimes takes the form of a crow — spared her.
She survives, but she is covered in head-to-toe serious burns and spends the rest of the series in critical condition. When Frederick is presented with this phone, this burner phone he insists is not, cannot be his wife’s, he begins obsessing over it. The phone becomes a symbol of secrets, of what he sees as a huge betrayal. He thinks Morrie was cheating on him with his younger brother Perry, who he despised and who despised him. The locked phone, which he never does break into, becomes a weapon, something for him to use against Morrie for proof she can’t be trusted.
Against the doctor’s advice, Frederick brings Morrie home and claims to be able to care for her himself. His version of “care” is actually control. Frederick becomes increasingly abusive toward Morrie. He does a lot of cocaine, rarely sleeping, always watching her. Her injuries make it so she has limited movement and speech ability, and when some of those abilities begin to come back, Frederick squashes them by using an experimental paralytic on her — one developed by his family’s evil pharmaceutical empire. She can’t advocate for herself, can’t even signal to their daughter that she’s suffering under the abusive anti-care of Frederick.
In a cocaine- and paranoia-induced trance, Frederick says everything that comes out of Morrie’s mouth is a lie. He doesn’t want explanations from her. He wants to punish her. And so, while she’s under the effects of the paralytic (but not, it should be noted, given any Ligodone, the opioid the Usher family built its legacy on), Frederick extracts Morrie’s teeth. As punishment. As trophies. As reminders he has complete and total control over her. The Ushers all approach their intimate relationships this way — from a place of complete and sadistic authority over their lovers.
The kills in The Fall of House of Usher are bold, violent, and memorable. But none of them are as haunting or horrifying as this violation of Morrie’s mouth. She might live, but her ending almost feels more brutal than those of the dead Usher siblings.
What is it that made “Berenice” especially disturbing within Poe’s canon of horrors?
As a modern reader, I know some of my discomfort with the story comes from a projection of my knowledge of Poe’s own life onto it. He, too, married his younger cousin (he was 27, and she was 13), and while their relationship is often described quaintly in biographies and history books, it’s hard not to see those numbers and feel immediate unease. Of course, I’m not saying I wonder if Poe ever thought about extracting her teeth. As a horror writer myself, I’d never assume a horror writer shares the same depravities as their characters, but this narrator’s fixation on his cousin is difficult to extract from this context. In a peculiar choice of language, Egaeus regards his proposal of marriage to Berenice as an “evil moment.” It is hard, indeed, not to think of the inherent wickedness of Poe taking on a child bride.
Though, of course, Poe’s contemporary readers wouldn’t have necessarily had an issue with that as these kind of marriages were common. What then made all those readers write into the paper to complain about “Berenice,” eventually leading Poe to publish a censored version even though he stood by the original and liked to point out how many of copies of the issue sold. Many of the themes present in the story can be found elsewhere in Poe’s work: premature burials, the death of a beautiful woman, obsessive men with withering mental health, intimate partner violence.
But there’s something about the teeth of it all. It is slow, laborious work to rip someone’s teeth out. To do it 32 times is incomprehensible.
Egaeus’s life, as he renders it in his own narration, is gloomy. But Berenice is a bright spot. In The Fall of the House of Usher, Frederick’s family members remark that Morrie is the only thing he got right. These women are like gems for these men to collect, and we’re never really let into either of their psyches. Both stories expose the hideous whims of patriarchy. Morrie and Berenice both undergo significant physical transformations that are seen as an affront to their physical beauty by the men in their lives. But it’s not illness nor tragic accident that undoes these women; it’s the violent acts these men do to them that truly leads to their undoing.
In “Berenice,” there’s a peculiar undercurrent to Egaeus’ obsession with his wife that hints at the possibility of repressed or otherwise questioning sexuality. “During the brightest days of her unparalleled beauty, most surely I had never loved her,” Egaeus reflects. While a lot of Poe’s stories do seem straightforward in their metaphorical renderings, I think multiple readings are possible for just about all of them, and that’s especially true of “Berenice,” where Egaeus’s fear of Berenice could be seen as a fear of his own latent desires or of hers. The most common interpretation of the story suggests it is Egaeus’s patriarchal anxieties about female sexuality that leads to his violence (in fact, the story is sometimes described as an iteration of “vagina dentata” lore, his act seen as a way of literally removing her power). I do think there’s room, too, for a reading of the story in which Egaeus’s obsession and fear blur because he can’t quite understand what it is he desires. Egaeus seems repressed throughout the story, and though I do see his act of violence toward Berenice as a form of patriarchal violence, I think his need for control is more complicated than just wanting to punish her for her beauty and sexuality.
In The Fall of the House of Usher, Frederick’s desire to punish Morrie undoubtedly stems from the fact that he thinks she has been sexually promiscuous behind his back. He’s convinced she cheated on him with his brother. But his paranoia runs so much deeper. All of the Ushers seem incapable, like Egaeus, of genuine love. All they know is control and repression. The drug they made their billions on, Ligodone, is a painkiller. It’s meant to control, to numb. Frederick does not grant Morrie this numbness though when he does this unspeakable act of violence to her mouth. He wants her to feel the very sensation his generational wealth is built on erasing.
Frederick is more overtly sadistic than Egaeus, but both characters are terrifying in the extremes they’ll go to in order to exert control over women. They’re both men with fragile or incomplete senses of self, and they take that out on these women. And there’s just something so scary about that kind of deeply embedded patriarchal violence at the core of these two tales. The Fall of the House of Usher takes a lot of liberties in its adaptations of Poe’s work. But those changes don’t work against or obscure the original works but rather deepen the experience of reading them. I can’t extract my experience of watching the series from my experience of reading “Berenice,” and nor do I want to. And those are often the types of adaptations that excite me most.