Friday, March 24, 2017

Book Review - Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Published by: Penguin
Publication Date: 1962
Format: Hardcover, 235 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

None of the villagers go to Hill House. No one will hear you scream, in the dark, in the night. Dr. Montague views the house as the ideal location for his research of supernatural phenomena. The house's history coupled with the right participants should yield him the results he's looking for. Yet he only heard back from a few people selected as the perfect candidates for his summer long program, for sensitivity combined with previous supernatural encounters. In the end he gets the shy and awkward Eleanor who has spent much of her life caring for her recently deceased mother. She doesn't even remember the incident for which Dr. Montague recruited her she just views Hill House as her first real adventure and a way to get out from under the stifling life she's living on a cot at her sister's. Theo was chosen because of her apparent psychic abilities. Then there's Luke. Luke is the heir to Hill House. He doesn't have abilities or haunting experiences, he just needs to get out of his troubling patterns and his grandmother thinks locking him away at Hill House as a guarantee against Dr. Montague's lease is a lovely idea.

After each of the participants successfully battle their way past the suspicious caretaker, Mr. Dudley, and get explained the rigorous rules as regards the meals and cleaning up by his wife the group settles in. It does not take long for weird knocks to happen at doors in the night as well as severe temperature drops. The doors don't like to remain open, if this is Mrs. Dudley, or the house, they can't figure it out even with the aid of large doorstops. Very shortly they instigate a rule that no one is to wander alone, especially at night. Yet what is actually happening, if they where to write it down as per Dr. Montague's research guidelines, they wouldn't or couldn't be able to put it into words. Strange writings, noises, voices, drafts, and above all four very different personalities clashing, not counting the possible personalities of the house's former occupants. Is any of this real? Or are they hallucinating? Or should they all leave the house as fast as they can and never look back?

The Haunting of Hill House is the standard to which modern ghost stories are held. Even Stephen King has been known on more than one occasion to extol the virtues of this book. When I first read this book I couldn't help wondering why. But as more time passed I realized The Haunting of Hill House had left an impression on me and that I had perhaps judged it based on what I thought it should be versus what it was. Going back to the book I was once again drawn into Jackson's writing. She is able to depict places and characters so well that you feel you are inhabiting them. I also was able to pinpoint my dissatisfaction from my first reading. It's the ending. While I'm fine with open ended ambiguity it's that it was rushed. The book has a very languorous pace from Eleanor's daydreaming drive to Hill House through the daily routine the four occupants adapt, living like they are on holiday. And then Doctor Montague's wife arrives. This is when the story falls apart and just rushes headlong like Nell through the halls of the house until she goes straight into a tree. While this could have been Jackson's plan, having Mrs. Montague be the final push to Nell's death, instead it just feels like Jackson used Mrs. Montague to end the story in an abrupt if timely fashion.

Another reason I was initially dissatisfied was that there really isn't a plot per se. The book goes for impressions over tangibility. Any time anything vaguely spooky happens it's just glossed over or made light of when day breaks. The big scene where Theo and Nell are running from something, that's it, they ran, cut to the next morning where it will never be mentioned again. Yet over time this lack of substance works it's way into you building suspense and paranoia. This book is a slow burn, you might not feel the effects for a long time. Jackson is literally playing with our minds and the more you're willing to go back to the text the more the story works. A cumulative horror that becomes a compulsion that gripes you every fall. Because of all the things that Jackson doesn't say and doesn't spell out this allows The Haunting of Hill House to be interpreted a thousand different ways. Even the ending can be debated. As Nell slams her car into the tree so that she can forever stay at Hill House we aren't even certain of her death. All that we know is she longed for death, either because she was already suicidal or because she was driven there by supernatural means. Nell is the key here, because it's through her we are told the story and this might just be the biggest corker of an unreliable narrator ever.

Nell is interesting, but you can't really get a read on her. You know what it's like to be inside her mind, but it quickly becomes clear that this won't help you figure out what's happening, you just have to give in and let go. Her mind jumps and contradicts and doesn't make any kind of sense. Yet she is a sympathetic character. You're not sure if she's crazy but you become complicit in Nell's actions during the drive to Hill House. As she travels to her destination she sees glimpses of houses in different towns and wonders, what would her life be like there? What would happen if she decided this town was her final destination and it was her new home? Who hasn't while out walking or driving looked at a house or through an illuminated window at night and wondered what would their life be like if that was their house. Who would they be in a different setting? And that's how we become one with Nell. Whatever happens from that moment forward, whatever fantasy she spins about her and Theodora, whatever she see or hears, we are fully invested. We give in and let go with her and love the ride aboard the crazy train.

In fact, this analysis of Nell leads into the idea that Nell is in fact the haunting... but as I've said before you can interpret this book so many different ways that I find saying Nell is the haunting is wrong. I don't think the encounters the four occupants of Hill House come up against are manifestations of Nell. I think the house is it's own entity. It isn't just a building, it's a home, with personality, and once you have personality it is one quick step to being a person, a character in your own right. Therefore I fully believe that the house is haunted and it's not Nell. Well, it's not Nell at first. Because I think Nell is sensitive and is tuned into the house and as time goes on they are becoming one, which would be why she'd kill herself to never leave it. This is very obvious once Mrs. Montague arrives. Before this time the banging on the doors and the noises were unnatural phenomena that the house was creating, but once the good doctor's wife arrives Nell is the one banging on the doors. I think this is because the house is now using her for what it had to do by itself before. Nell has become an extension of the house and therefore helps with the haunting. It's no wonder she doesn't want to leave when this is the only place she's ever felt welcome.

In fact going back to this book I've realized that there's only one real problem with the different interpretations, and that's the lesbianism. I'm not against this at all and think that Nell and Theodora would make a lovely couple and they balance each other so well, what I see as problematic is Jackson's vehement denials that The Haunting of Hill House has anything to do with sex and in particular lesbianism. She didn't see sex as entering into her story at all. But so much of her story goes against what she later stated. Theodora is obviously a woman of the world while Nell is the virginal character who just doesn't understand, an innocent nature that the house can corrupt. Yet there's a connection between them long before there's a connection between Nell and the house. Also the fact that Jackson never comes out and says that Theodora's partner whom she left behind is male or female, though female is strongly implied, then why write this? Why have this omission if you didn't want the book to be read this way? If she was so against this interpretation just a few clarifications could have solved it. But then she wanted to leave her readers mystified and perhaps, despite her denials, this was just another mystery she enjoyed dangling in front of her audience. She was a master manipulator after all.


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