Below is a synopsis and analysis of “Usher II” from The Martian Chronicles for my class and, perhaps more accurately, for myself. I hope you enjoy!
“Usher II (2004-2005)” was originally published as “Carnival of Madness” in 1950 by Standard Magazines. It works as Bradbury’s love letter to Poe and feels like a prequel or alternate timeline for Fahrenheit 451 (1953) as it deals with censorship. It is similar to the 1949 short story “The Exiles” which was reprinted in The Illustrated Man (1951). “The Exiles” deals with authors whose spirits are on Mars, fearfully awaiting the burning of the final copies of their books. “Usher II” like “The Naming of Names” covers a period of time rather than a specific month, which is unusual because it seems to take place over the span of 1-2 days rather than 1-2 years. This chapter is also foreshadowed in the previous chapter, “The Naming of Names.”
William Stendahl: Millionaire and lover of fiction who concocts the elaborate plan for Usher II (which he calls “The House of Usher,” I am calling it “Usher II” for the sake of clarity). Importantly, he is the only character with a first name. Stendahl is characterized by intense anger and, although not likable, is the protagonist.
Mr. Bigelow: The architect who designed Usher II without knowing or caring what it is. He represents the complacent, unquestioning attitude of people, the “common man” in this story.
Mr. Garrett: Investigator of Moral Climates is his official title, he is in charge of enforcing the laws that regulate fiction and imagination. Like many characters in the story he has a robot double. Lack of imagination is his downfall.
Pikes: Stendahl’s right-hand man, an actor who is not allowed to act, and who is characterized by extreme bitterness. Pikes assists Stendahl in engineering the events in “Usher II.”
The Party Guests: Numbered around three dozen, some of which have names (so the narration flows well). They are portrayed essentially as sheep (like Bigelow) who Stendahl had befriended in the time leading up to the “party.” They, too, represent “the masses.”
Symbols, Allusions, and (Likely) Themes
Death: The most prevalent theme in the chapter is death which is represented by everything from references to haunting and ghosts, to the constant repetition of the word “death” in the chapter, to literal deaths. At the beginning of the story an intentional, mass death of organic life by DDT is talked about nonchalantly. Death is also foreshadowed by midnight, Garrett’s gun, and the dead Martians who are mentitoned. Impending death is also foreshadowed by Usher II’s perpetual autumnal twilight, both symbols that death is near. The color black is also the pervading color in this chapter, and Bradbury uses so much color in his writing, and so rarely uses black, that it is important.
Damnation: Stendahl is a deeply imperfect messenger and damnation is a major theme in this chapter, be it literal or that the human race, symbolically damned by their rejection of imagination. This is symbolized in the chapter by the references to burning books and films, the incinerator, rockets “burning the sky,” and the word “blasphemy.” Additionally, the sun, which would traditionally represent hope, has been “blotted out” of the sky. Garrett is also “condemned,” as it were, by Stendahl, and is left to die in a prison under Usher II.
Rockets: Throughout The Martian Chronicles rockets represent human colonization and this chapter is no different.
Seven: The number seven occurs throughout the chapter. Stendahl’s preparation for the party starts are seven o’clock and there are seven rooms that the guests move through, the final being a black room of death. Seven could be a reference to the Biblical week wherein God created everything and then rested, just like Stendahl creates Usher II and then rests. This is also an allusion to Poe (discussed further on).
Metal: Metals are used throughout The Martian Chronicles as well. In this chapter there is copper and bronze in the form of robots.
Personification: Both robots and film (movies) are personified in this chapter. Stendahl and Pikes’ bitterness transcends the loss of livelihood or inanimate object (film, library); personifying robot, book, and film change the dimension of the action completely in the text.
Sentient Weapons: Like in Ylla, where a living weapon (bee gun) causes death, in “Usher II” the quasi-alive robots are the ones who kill the dozens of party guests, which creates a distance moral between Stendahl and the murders. This allows him to remain an ambiguous character.
“The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allen Poe: Referenced in the title of the story, the name of the house, and the closing lines of the story, which are direct quotations from Poe’s work.
“The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe: The description of the house has hearts beating under floorboards in this brief allusion.
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allen Poe: Garrett is killed by an ape and the first person to die at the party is stuffed up a chimney by (presumably) the same ape, both references to Poe’s story. At this point Garrett confesses his knowledge of Poe’s work by naming the specific stories referenced, noting he was the one who burned them.
“The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allen Poe: In an almost comedic scene, one guest is carried by white rabbits to a pit in the floor, complete with swinging pendulum.
“The Premature Burial” by Edgar Allen Poe: Another party guest is nailed into a coffin and placed “into the raw earth under the floor.”
“The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allen Poe: There are seven rooms for the guests with Red Death in the seventh and, additionally, the women are made to wear red dresses.
“The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allen Poe: This final Poe story that is alluded to gets almost as frequently as “Usher” in that Stendahl insists on acting out the final scene of the story with Garrett as his victim. The story is used to taunt Garrett with hope, only to take it away, possibly mirroring the death of hope that Stendahl experienced when he realized that Mars was being overtaken by the same people who burned his books on Earth, and that there was “no escape” for him, either. The “harlequin” early in the story is also a nod to “Cask.”
Hamlet by William Shakespeare: A brief but powerful allusion as Garrett accuses Stendahl of murder and Stendahl replies only: “murder most foul” as the party guests begin to die.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll: There are numerous, brief allusions to dozens of other works, but the Alice novels are referenced numerous times. In Stendahl’s speech to Bigelow, Alice is mentioned drinking poison from the bottle, and the looking-glass is described as smashed, while the Oyster(s) (referencing “The Walrus and the Carpenter”) and the Red King are driven away. In the robot personification section (discussed below) there are mentions of Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Dormouse, the Mock-Turtle, and white rabbit. Later the party is populated by multiple Dormice, Mad Hatters, and White Queens. Finally, white rabbits carry one victim to their death.
Babbitt: Stendahl sarcastically speculates that the Moral Climates people will be “burning Babbitts next,” referencing the 1922 Sinclair Lewis novel of the same name. Essentially, “Babbitt” is shorthand for a conformist.
Fairy Tales: There are many fairy tales referenced (Snow White, Mother Goose, Rumpelstiltskin, Jack and the Beanstalk, Sleeping Beauty, and the phrase “Once Upon a Time”) and, more specifically, Rapunzel “lets down her hair” so the guests can enter Stendahl’s “enchanted” party.
This chapter opens with appropriately bleak imagery: it is autumn, the day is “dull, dark, and soundless,” with the house, Usher II, on top of a black hill with “raven grass.” This is immediately called to the reader’s attention by Mr. Stendahl who commissioned the mansion from Mr. Bigelow, an architect. Surrounding the house, it is perpetually “October” at twilight, with all of the images foreshadowing death, which is reinforced by Bigelow’s announcement that this team had to use “tons of DDT” to make sure everything around the house really was dead. There are even machines which “blot out the sun,” symbolizing hopelessness. As Stendahl discusses the literary origin of the house with Bigelow the reader learns that it takes place in the same universe at Fahrenheit 451 and that all fiction has been outlawed and burned. In a paragraph that is all allusion – a list too long to go into – Stendahl mourns the death of literature to Bigelow, who is completely oblivious. Stendahl is furious that Bigelow thinks “the Burning” was a good thing and, red-faced, sends him away with a warning that Usher II was made to “teach you [people] a fine lesson for what you did.”
It is at this point that Mr. Garrett, Investigator of Moral Climates, lands in a rocket, and things really get cooking. There is immediate animosity between the characters as Garrett announces that soon Mars will be as “tidy” as Earth. When asked for an explanation, Stendahl gleefully describes the mansion: “In it copper bats fly on electronic beams, brass rats scuttle in plastic cellars, robot skeletons dance; robot vampires, harlequins, wolves, and white phantoms, compounded of chemical and ingenuity, live here.” Garrett smiles as he announces that it has to be torn down, and the reader gets more of Stendahl’s back story: millionaire at a young age and bitter because the government burned his private library. Stendahl convinces Garrett to take a tour so that he might make a “full report” and Garrett agrees, announcing that he has a gun, which foreshadows the death in the short story.
Inside Usher II is Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride if the ride was actually scary and created by a sociopath. It’s packed to the brim with animatronic robots that can move on their own, including an ape which Stendahl signals to kill Garrett, which it does. Stendahl’s henchman, Pikes, enters with a robot Garrett to buy them more time, and the pair dump the original Garrett into the incinerator (effectively trading burning for burning). Robot Garrett flies away to make his report and Stendahl briefly introduces Pikes as a master actor “with the bitterness in him as deep as a black, charred well of green acid.” The party guests now start to arrive and we, the reader, know that it’s going to be a bloodbath. At this point there is an interesting interlude wherein the robots are described in extremely poetic terms, both anthropomorphized and emphasized as being inanimate; this is coupled with more allusions.
The distinguished guests arrive, people whom Stendahl had recently befriended, and Stendahl welcomes them “to the vasty halls of Death!” as they ask him about the house. He makes them change into costumes – we find out why soon enough – and Stendahl explains away their fears by telling them it is a costume ball. As the guests emerge from the changing rooms, Pikes appears “with the face of Death” and reveals to Stendahl that when he checked on Garrett’s remains he discovered that it was a robot, not a human, that they had incinerated. After a moment of panic, Stendahl realizes that Garrett probably won’t notice the switch and, feeling “safe,” might appear in person, which he immediately does. As the real real Garrett mentions “murder” Miss Pope runs in and screams that she just saw Miss Blunt stuffed up the chimney by an ape. Miss Blunt then appears and says she’s alive and just watched her robot double die. This grisly scene then repeats itself several more times – each a literary allusion – before Stendahl announces he has something planned for Garrett as well that he wants to show him. Garrett stupidly agrees to follow him into the basement, which makes sense since we are supposed to believe he was raised in a world without horror movies. Even before we see the word the readers knows it’s a reference to “The Cask of Amontillado” and, after chaining Garrett to the wall, Stendahl announces that there is no duplicate of Garrett. In fact, he tells him, the robots watched the deaths of the real guests. Stendahl then sadistically forces Garrett to reenact the closing of “The Cast of Amontillado,” feeding him lines and demanding a “good show” before walling Garrett in with bricks.
At the party, full of robots, The Red Death appears as the clock strikes midnight and Stendahl, with Pikes, leave the house. They then detonate the house, watch it crumble into the ground while speaking the final lines of Poe’s short story, and fly away in a helicopter.
I hope you found this synopsis and analysis helpful! I’m just one person, so please let me know of any corrections or omissions in the comments and I would be much obliged.