Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club, which reads a classic horror book every October. We also dress up based on a theme from the book, our hosts decorated their house to the nines, and we have a good time. 

One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. While I do have a couple of other Shirley Jackson books on my list, I had, believe it or not, never read anything by Shirley Jackson. Not even “The Lottery,” which it seems is part of the standard literature curriculum. Speaking of that short story, my wife insisted that I read it before our meeting, so that I would know what everyone else was referencing. 

The Haunting of Hill House is the quintessential haunted house story, with so many recognizable tropes: the house that seems to have a mind of its own, a dark family backstory, a spooky housekeeper, places of unnatural cold, thumpings and bangings in the night, and so on. It wasn’t the first of its kind. That place of honor likely belongs to Edgar Alan Poe’s story, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which also told of a house with a bad personality. The gothic story existed long before that, of course. In the European tradition, it was usually a castle, not an old Victorian-style house, that was haunted. Tales of apparitions and monsters date back millennia. But it was Poe who brought them together into the recognizable American form. (For those counting, Poe also originated the detective story, with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”)

While Shirley Jackson’s novel cannot be considered groundbreaking, it is widely acknowledged as one of the finest of the genre. I have to agree with that sentiment. The writing is outstanding, and Jackson does so much with so little. The atmosphere, the suspense, the psychological terror - these predominate despite very little of the book having anything out of the ordinary. The apparitions, such as they are, are brief, and often left to the imagination. For example, the two women discover some sort of a ghostly picnic while out walking. But it is never described, and the reader never learns just what they saw or why it was frightening. 

The four main characters are Dr. Montague, the researcher who organizes the expedition to Hill House; Luke, the heir to the house; Theo, an artist invited because of her supposed experience of the supernatural as a child; and Eleanor, invited for the same reason, but with a more traumatic history. Eleanor is a spinster who lives with her sister and family, but is treated like a servant and never given her own space. Eleanor spent her adult life caring for her invalid mother, and now feels guilty for her mom’s death. The four arrive at Hill House determined to document their experiences. However, Eleanor becomes more involved, and feels that the house itself has called her to remain there. 

One of the reasons that the book works so well is that Jackson seems to be writing from experience, as it were. The events do not shock her but seem like something that was expected, normal (for hauntings at least), and mostly unremarkable. Her characters may find them disturbing, but their emotions are set down with the same nonchalance. In some ways, this emotional distance allows Jackson to add layers of psychological depth. 

Another technique which Jackson uses to full advantage is withholding information and doling it out gradually throughout the book. We know a little of Eleanor, but most of her background emerges gradually as the plot progresses - she reveals things in her conversations with other characters. And, in some cases, we learn things about Eleanor when other characters repeat things Eleanor apparently told them earlier. For this reason, the psychological connection between the house and Eleanor’s trauma doesn’t emerge until late in the book. She is still trying to find her mother, so to speak, and the house plays on that. 

There are a few lines worth mentioning. First is from the opening paragraph - and is repeated in the closing paragraph as well. 

Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years, and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone. 

I think this ranks in the list of best opening (and closing) lines to a book. It is certainly memorable, sets the tone, and sums up the feeling of the book at the end. 

There is also an interesting exchange between the characters early on, when they find that it is difficult to navigate the house, which appears to have been set up kind of like an onion, with layers of rooms, many of which do not have windows to the outside, and connect in unexpected directions. 

“Why did they mix themselves up so?” Theodora asked. “Why so many little odd rooms?” 
“Maybe they liked to hide from each other,” Luke said. 

Later, Montague is talking about the house, and the distinction between being “haunted” and being “sick.” The focus, in the doctor’s mind, is less on spirits, and more on the house itself. But he also notes that there are rational theories that have become popular as well. 

“What else would you call Hill House?” Luke demanded.
“Well--disturbed, perhaps. Leprous. Sick. Any of the popular euphemisms for insanity; a deranged house is a pretty conceit. There are popular theories, however, which discount the eerie, the mysterious; there are people who will tell you that the disturbances I am calling ‘psychic’ are actually the result of subterranean waters, or electric currents, or hallucinations caused by polluted air; atmospheric pressure, sun spots, earth tremors all have their advocates among the skeptical. People,” the doctor said sadly, “are always so anxious to get things out into the open where they can put a name to them, even a meaningless name, so long as it has something of a scientific ring.” 

This is rather true. Just like people from my Fundie background tend to want to assign “spiritual” explanations to everything, skeptics often insist on finding (pseudo)scientific ways of describing experiences they can’t explain. Seeing a demon behind every door isn’t that different from grasping at a rational explanation for an unexplainable experience. (I’m not going to get into it in this blog post, but there are stories I have heard from family and friends across the religious to atheist spectrum that are quite interesting - as are the attempts at explanation. And no, I am not at all prepared to offer an explanation myself.) 

In connection with this idea, one of the most puzzling yet fascinating sections in the book comes when the doctor’s wife suddenly shows up. She is a big believer in the paranormal, but...isn’t successful at experiencing it. In fact, she is the one person in the party who never experiences the manifestations. She never hears the banging, or sees the apparitions, and she can’t even feel the cold spots. There is certainly a bit of irony there. 

In addition to these themes, Jackson utilizes an obsessive repetition of a few phrases in Eleanor’s head. The most common is “Journeys end in lovers’ meeting.” At the time, I thought this was familiar, but couldn’t place it. After our club meeting, I looked it up, and discovered that it was from Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s bizarre comedy. Namely, it is a song sung by the jester. Here is the entire song: 
The Clown, singing
O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?  
O stay and hear! your true-love’s coming  
That can sing both high and low;  
Trip no further, pretty sweeting,  
Journeys end in lovers’ meeting—          
Every wise man’s son doth know.  
What is love? ’tis not hereafter;  
Present mirth hath present laughter;  
What’s to come is still unsure:  
In delay there lies no plenty,—          
Then come kiss me, Sweet-and-twenty,  
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

It is a pretty normal carpe diem poem, honestly. But I guess it makes for an interesting contrast with Eleanor, who has done the opposite, letting her youth decay and never asserting herself. Until she comes to Hill House. 

There is undoubtedly more to say about the book. We had an interesting discussion, as usual (it’s a great club with thoughtful people), and I am glad to have read The Haunting of Hill House. I will definitely read the other Shirley Jackson books on my list. 


Just for fun, here is the list of books that our book club has read. At least the ones I have read too. Most of these were read for the club, but a few were ones I read previously - those posts pre-date the club discussion - and some I read afterward, because I missed the discussion. 

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