The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The opening paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s haunted house novel is so good, everyone who writes about the book is statutorily obliged to quote it:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. 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.”

It’s that “not sane” that, for me, delivers the killer blow. Hill House isn’t insane. Insane is a technical term, a doctor’s diagnosis — a dismissal, and a pretence at understanding. “Not sane”, though, sounds like it has found a whole new way of being. It sounds like something we don’t know, and never can.

This is one of the great strengths of Shirley Jackson’s novel. After the pioneering days of the 1890s greats which found new ways to talk about the darkness that lurks in the human psyche — Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, Dorian Gray, The Turn of the Screw, Dracula — the ghost story was effectively neutered by Freud and other psychoanalysts, who taxonomised and rubber-stamped all those areas of inner darkness. They were “understood”. What Shirley Jackson does in The Haunting of Hill House is write a ghost story that, far from being disempowered by the ideas of Freud and co., gains new power because of them, then goes on to transcend them. “No,” it seems to say, “you don’t understand.”

The Haunting of Hill House coverHill House begins with Dr John Montague, inspired by “the intrepid nineteenth-century ghost hunters”, deciding to carry out a proper scientific investigation of a genuinely haunted house. Having selected Hill House as his subject, he invites as many people with even the slightest hint of psychic ability as he can find to join him in a three-month stay. Two turn up — timid Eleanor Vance and sophisticated Theodora (so individualistic she only needs a first name) — and, together with Luke Sanderson, a representative from the owning family (who don’t live at the house), the quartet take up residence towards the end of June 1956.

Eleanor is only recently free of 11 years caring for her mother, a period of “small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness and unending despair.” Reduced, now, to sleeping in a cot in the baby’s room at her married sister’s — who, along with her husband, talk about Eleanor in front of her as though she wasn’t there, and make decisions for her as though she were a child — when she receives Dr Montague’s invitation, she accepts because, at that point, she “would have gone anywhere”. She’s 32 years old and “Nothing of the least importance has ever belonged to me”. On the drive to Hill House, she fantasises about how this is the first day of the sort of life everybody else has been enjoying all this time and which she, at last, is now going to have too. “Journeys end in lovers meeting,” she keeps telling herself. And then she sees the house where she is to stay:

“The house was vile. She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.”

But she doesn’t get away. She has no other chance at life but this.

The genius of Jackson’s novel comes from how the hauntings, when they begin, fit so perfectly with Eleanor’s fragile psyche. As an adolescent, shortly after the disappearance of her father, Eleanor seems to have produced a brief bout of poltergeist activity, hence her invitation to Dr Montague’s ghost-hunting party. So, when the increasingly insistent phenomena of Hill House begin to present themselves, it’s possible to see them as coming from Eleanor’s own pent-up frustrations, unconscious needs and self-persecutions. The night-time knocking at doors could be a reminder of Eleanor’s mother’s death (she later admits she heard her mother knocking on her bedroom wall, but refused to go to her); the chalk message that appears on a wall — “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME” — could be Eleanor’s need to make herself the long-denied centre of attention in this new circle of friends; the next message (in blood, on Theodora’s door) and the attack on Theodora’s clothes could be Eleanor’s unconscious aggression towards Theodora for suggesting Eleanor wrote that first message herself, as well as being a ploy to make Theo move into her own room, to own this new friend all the more.

Equally, these phenomena could be read as the intensely malignant, abominably wise Hill House manipulating Eleanor in the subtlest of ways. By naming Eleanor in that first message, it isolates her from the others, and starts to make her realise that the only true friend she has is the house itself. By attacking Theodora’s room and forcing Theo to wear Eleanor’s clothes, the house could be playing with Eleanor’s fragile sense of identity, making her seem less and less needed as she sees how Theo continues to shine, even in Nell’s drab clothes. Eleanor begins increasingly to haunt the others, listening unseen to their conversations, hungry to hear herself mentioned (which she never is). She’s halfway to being a ghost already.

That initial message — “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME” — is itself wonderfully ambiguous. Is this a cry from Eleanor’s dead mother’s spirit, warning her away from Hill House, or is it a cry from the house itself, inviting Eleanor to become a fuller part of it? What does “COMING HOME” mean? Leaving Hill House, or being part of it forever?

Jackson’s characters — and Jackson herself — are part of a generation that would have grown up with the ideas of Freud, have become cynically used to questioning their own motives and reading their unconscious slips as the symptoms of a Freudian psyche, chock full of childhood anxieties, veiled narcissisms, hostilities and frustrations. The nonsensical, self-conscious fantasising of the main trio’s banter sounds simultaneously like an attempt to not admit how scared they are, while also acting as the perfect word-association-style carrier for letting out unconscious fantasies and frustrations, for fencing with one another and judging one another without having to admit that’s what they’re doing. In the end, it’s nothing but nonsensical babbling compared to the vast unknowability of un-sane Hill House.

At the book’s conclusion, two details from that superlative first paragraph magnify the horror, despite the ambiguity over whether it’s Eleanor’s troubled psyche playing out its most dangerous impulses, or Hill House as a real and active supernatural force.

The first is the idea that what drove Hill House “not sane” are “conditions of absolute reality”. What’s going on here is not contact with a removed and abstract netherworld, but something far more real than our everyday lives, too real to be faced. At one point, Dr Montague says: “I think we are only afraid of ourselves,” to which Luke says, “No… of seeing ourselves clearly and without disguise.” Is this, then, what happens to Eleanor? Hill House’s “masterpiece of architectural misdirection” so perfectly mirrors her own disordered psyche that it brings it out for her to see, in all its nasty, infantile purity? And, faced with this horrific but unavoidable self-judgement, she has only one course open to her.

Then there’s that phrase: “whatever walked there, walked alone.” It’s repeated at the end of the novel, and it seems to add a further twist to Eleanor’s inevitable fate. Because we know, by then, that Eleanor has come to feel that joining with Hill House might be joining with “HOME”, might be a kind of belonging, even if it is of a twisted kind. But that final phrase — “whatever walked there, walked alone” — implies that she never achieves any sort of belonging. Perhaps she dies completely, victim of a Hill House that continues to exist alone in its isolated malignancy; perhaps she finds herself a ghost in Hill House, but just as isolated as before; worse, perhaps even in the afterlife Hill House continues to play its psychological games with her, keeping her unbalanced, isolated, afraid; or perhaps it absorbs Eleanor into itself, overpowering what little precious individuality she once had.

Jackson’s novel — like Aickman’s “Strange Stories”, which belong to the same era — escaped the fate of early 20th century ghost stories by confronting and transcending the new psychoanalytical thinking about the darkness that lurks within. By doing so, Jackson regained, for the supernatural tale, the power to depict that inner darkness with so much more force than any mere technical jargon ever could. Freudian terminology, overused and “understood”, quickly ceases to capture the very powerful, and highly dramatic reality of what lurks within the depths of the human psyche. In The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson restores the ghost story’s power to terrify, overwhelm and overpower; she restores its ambiguity and deceptiveness, the way it can play with us and prove that, far from us “knowing” it, it in fact knows us — and all our weaknesses — which it can then proceed to prey on mercilessly.

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

The Demolished Man, cover by Adrian Chesterman

The Demolished Man, cover by Adrian Chesterman

It’s 2301 A.D., and thanks to telepathic ‘peeper’ police, there hasn’t been a successful premeditated murder in seventy-nine years. Ben Reich, head of Monarch Industries, thinks the only way he can rid himself of nightmares in which he’s haunted by the ‘Man with No Face’ is by either merging with or taking over his only serious corporate rival, the D’Courtney Cartel. But when he decodes the ciphered reply to his offer of a merger and reads it as ‘refused’, his thoughts turn dangerously to his only remaining option: murder.

Published in 1953, The Demolished Man is a big-ideas book, fast-paced and full of invention, both in the small details (like Bester’s writing certain character names as @tkins, Duffy Wig&, and Jo ¼maine, or in his textual representations of interweaving telepathic conversations) and in the large (such as how you go about committing a murder in a world where even to contemplate the act is telegraphed to every ESPer you pass). Essentially a police-procedural, whose plot is divided equally between mega-personality Ben Reich’s grand and impossible murder plans, and head of the Police Psychotic Division Lincoln Powell’s efforts to nail him, it’s also a sort of on-the-verge-of-Utopia novel.

Bester_DemlishedThis is because The Demolished Man, as a book, believes in the dreams of psychoanalysis. Its peeper telepaths are, in a sense, future psychoanalysts, gifted with the ability to look beneath the workings of the persona, to layers with which the subject themselves might not be in conscious contact. And those layers — that structure of the subsurface mind — is, in Bester’s future, almost textbook Freudian.

For instance, the murder victim’s daughter, Barbara D’Courtney, is the perfect model of the psychoanalytic idea of trauma. Having witnessed the killing of her father, she goes insane, and relives (even reenacts) the originating episode whenever she’s triggered by the word ‘help’. To cure her, instead of lying her on a couch and asking her to recall her childhood, she’s mentally regressed to her childhood, and then rebuilt into sane adulthood from the ground up. (During which we get a firsthand peeper glimpse of the terrible power of the id: ‘the timeless reservoir of psychic energy, reasonless, remorseless, seething with the never-ending search for satisfaction.’ This was also the decade that gave us Forbidden Planet’s ‘monster from the Id’.) Most Freudian of all, as part of this rebuilding she mentally adopts peeper policeman Powell as her new father, and, true to Freudian prescription, falls in love with him. But, as he’s not really her father, and as she’s not really a child but a grown woman, this is a falling-in-love-with-the-father that has a happy ending — a science fictional Freudian fulfilment.

The_Demolished_Man_first_editionBen Reich (whose surname and company name both point to delusions of over-control) is, by contrast, a monster of the Ego, who in his ecstasy of victory shouts: ‘Want to look at God? Here I am!’ But this is moments before his final, devastating confrontation with the one enemy who has the power to destroy him, the ‘Man with No Face’. And who is the ‘Man with No Face’? The ego’s own, personally-tailored, perfectly-fit nemesis, the unconscious — undefeatable, because inseparable. (In response to Reich’s cry of ‘I don’t understand. I can’t understand’, the Man with No Face says: ‘My part of us understands, Ben. You could understand too if you hadn’t driven me from you.’)

The one part of the Freudian model where Bester’s future differs is in its replacement of the purely sexual libido with a more simplified ‘Life instinct’:

‘Every man is a balance of two opposed drives… The Life Instinct and the Death Instinct. Both drives have the identical purpose… to win Nirvana. The Life Instinct fights for Nirvana by smashing all opposition. The Death Instinct attempts to win Nirvana by destroying itself. Usually both instincts fuse in the adapted individual.’

Bester’s future hasn’t got the sexual hangups of Freud’s day — certainly not among the decadent rich and powerful whose company we’re mostly in, anyway — and Reich’s life-drive is far more Nietzschean than Freudian, with its urge to transcend conventional morality, ‘the make-believe rules some frightened little man wrote for the rest of the frightened little men’. (Powell at one point calls him ‘the deadly enemy of Galactic reason and reality’, implying there’s something blasphemous about his overweening lust for dominance.) Though, it has to be admitted, the terms Reich himself uses might make a Freudian stroke his beard knowingly:

‘My God! It’s lucky for the world I’m willing to stop at one murder. Together we could rape the universe.’

There’s something distinctly Jacobean about Reich, the way he strides the centre stage of Bester’s future like Marlowe’s Tamberlaine or Shakespeare’s Macbeth, chewing the scenery and breaking the props in search of some pure expression of his grand, monstrously human living essence. Despite the fact that policeman Powell is the ultimate victor — and the voice of safety, sanity, and reason — it’s Reich who’s king of this novel, and whose unnerving energy, and constant edge-of-the-moment invention drive the story, and threaten to take over its world:

‘He was one of those rare World-Shakers whose compulsions might have torn down our society and irrevocably committed us to his own psychotic pattern.’

Bester’s road to utopia lies not through technology, but through understanding the human soul, dark reaches and all:

‘Be grateful you’re not a peeper, sir. Be grateful that you only see the outward man. Be grateful that you never see the passions, the hatreds, the jealousies, the malice, the sickness… Be grateful you rarely see the frightening truth in people. The world will be a wonderful place when everyone’s a peeper and everyone’s adjusted…’

And it’s by throwing light into those dark, monstrous reaches that utopia will be gained:

‘You must learn how it is. You must tear the barriers down. You must tear the veils away. We see the truth you cannot see… That there is nothing in man but love and faith, courage and kindness, generosity and sacrifice. All else is only the barrier of your blindness. One day we’ll all be mind to mind and heart to heart…’

Yeah, baby — ‘we can make it if we’re heart to heart’.

The way to read this sort of old SF is to bask in the big ideas, not ask if it’s realistic, or even possible. Give yourself to the grandiloquence, the bluster, the wonder, the rush of invention — and to the sheer level of belief in utopias. That’s what this sort of SF is all about.