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.

Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson

jackson_darktalesThere’s an intense ambivalence about the idea of ‘home’ in these tales by Shirley Jackson. On the one hand, home is a longed-for refuge from a harsh outside world; on the other, it’s a trap the protagonists want to escape from.

In ‘The Bus’, for instance, an old spinster is making her way home by bus, though she hates the journey and finds both the ticket-seller and the driver rude. All she wants is to get home, away from all the difficulty and unpleasantness. She falls asleep en route, then suddenly the driver’s telling her it’s her stop. Ushered off, only half awake, she finds herself abandoned at an isolated crossroads in the pouring rain, with no one around to help, and that’s just the start of her troubles. In ‘Paranoia’, a man is on his way home from work when he becomes convinced there’s a conspiracy of people following him, and is driven to increasingly desperate means of shaking them off. In both cases, home is an ever-receding goal, a constantly denied refuge from a threatening, irrational world.

In contrast to the nightmare journey home is the idea of home as a trap. In ‘The Good Wife’, a husband keeps his wife locked in her bedroom till she confesses to an affair that he himself may have invented as an excuse to keep her incarcerated. In ‘The Story We Used To Tell’, perhaps the strangest story in the book, a woman is staying at a female friend’s house when the friend disappears. The woman sees the friend trapped in a picture (an old painting of the friend’s house) on the friend’s bedroom wall and, touching it, is herself sucked into it. The two women find themselves stuck in a portrait version of the house with a pair of the friend’s ancestors, who seem to have been driven mad by being held in the painting for so long.

shirleyjacksonMarriage, an intrinsic part of the idea of ‘home’, often takes a murderous turn in these tales. The purest example of this is ‘What A Thought’, in which a happily married wife has the sudden, irrational urge to bash her husband’s head in with an ashtray. The trouble is, once she’s thought it, there’s only one way to get rid of the idea… In ‘The Honeymoon of Mrs Smith’, all the townsfolk seem desperately keen to say something to the newly-married Mrs Smith, but can’t bring themselves to do so. Finally, the landlady where she’s staying for her honeymoon sums up the courage to suggest Mrs Smith’s husband looks uncomfortably like a man whose photo has been in the papers for marrying, then murdering, young women for the insurance payout. But, oddly, the new Mrs Smith isn’t at all concerned…

Shirley Jackson’s version of a happy marriage is at the heart of what, for me, is the best story in the book, ‘The Beautiful Stranger’. Here, a wife goes to the railway station to meet her husband who’s returning from a sales trip. Just before he left, they’d argued, but when he gets off the train, the wife is surprised by how courteous and polite he is. She begins to suspect he may not be her husband at all, and he keeps giving her conspiratorial smiles, as though to say he knows she knows he isn’t. She’s delighted. Because of this frisson of strangeness and unfamiliarity, of politeness and kindness, it’s a whole lot better than with her ‘old’ husband. But then, taking a walk by herself one evening, she returns to the street where she lives to find she can’t tell which house is hers. It’s as though a blissful home life can only be sustained in a narrow band of mild alienation, but she’s passed irrecoverably through that to something far more isolating, and now everything’s lost. This tale is the perfect example of what Jack Sullivan says of Jackson in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural:

‘Reversing M R James’s dictum that a ghost story should leave a narrow “loophole” for a natural explanation, Jackson wrote stories of psychological anguish than leave a loophole for a supernatural explanation.’

Community, like marriage, is a wider extension of the idea of ‘home’, and, as you’d expect from the author of ‘The Lottery’ (not included in this book), there are a number of tales of poisonous communities, here. 71-year-old Miss Adela Strangeworth in ‘The Possibility of Evil’ is very much a community insider, so much a part of her small-town’s life that everyone knows her and she knows everyone, right down to their darkest secrets, which she writes to them about in anonymous, hurtful letters. Ethel Stone in ‘Home’, on the other hand, has just moved into a countryside town and is doing her best to fit in. She’s amused by how the shopkeepers warn her off using a certain road in the rain. Thinking they’re simply concerned about the state of the road, she uses it anyway, and on the way sees an old woman and a young boy (in pyjamas) by the roadside. She insists on giving them a lift, and is a little puzzled that they want to go to ‘the Sanderson Place’, as that’s where she lives. She drives off with them in the back, but when she gets to her new home, they’ve disappeared. She soon learns they’re a pair of local ghosts. At first she’s thrilled. Having her own story to tell about a local legend will be her ticket to feeling part of the community. But on her way into town the next day, she has a second encounter that leaves her unable to speak about them, and it’s only at this point — now she has a shared secret she can’t speak of — that she finds herself being treated as a true local. Dark secrets, for Shirley Jackson, are what binds a community together, just as marriage is as much made of murderous impulses as it is of love.

The Haunting of Hill House coverNot all the stories in Dark Tales worked for me as stories, though those that didn’t, those whose hanging endings were a little too ambiguous for my tastes, do still work as nightmares. And they throw a good deal of light on the one Jackson work I know well. The Haunting of Hill House seems the perfect summation of all these wildly ambivalent feelings about the idea of ‘home’ as both a horrific trap and a longed-for refuge from a difficult world. Jackson’s prose style — unadorned and straightforward, deliciously precise — is the perfect representation of a world in which dark, unspoken impulses are waiting to break suddenly and violently through an apparently placid, well-ordered surface. The thing that perhaps adds that thrilling jolt to these tales is how much that breaking-through is, however horrific, longed for.

Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand

Wylding Hall, from PS Publishing. Art by David Gentry; cover design by Michael Smith.

Wylding Hall, from PS Publishing. Art by David Gentry; cover design by Michael Smith.

Like the classic children’s adventure story problem of how to get the adults out of the way so the action can begin, the basic problem of so many haunted house stories is how to get a bunch of (usually emotionally rickety) people into the most haunted house you can find, then keep them there once the ghosts start appearing. Shirley Jackson solved the problem by having a psychic researcher, Dr Montague, seek out some paranormally-charged individuals for a stay in Hill House for the express purpose of seeing ghosts; Stephen King had his would-be-author Jack Torrance take on the job of winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel so he can finish his novel. Wylding Hall isn’t a haunted house story — it deals with faeries, not ghosties — but Elizabeth Hand presents an elegant solution to the same problem: it’s 1972, and producer/manager Tom Haring hires an out-of-the-way country house so acid-folk band Windhollow Fayre, still recovering from a recent tragedy, can write songs for their crucial second album.

Of course, he’s chosen the wrong house. Wylding Hall is a ‘vasty house’ — one of those dream-like labyrinths of hidden nooks and winding passageways, locked doors and dark stairways, far bigger on the inside than they should be, with an ancient library here, a corridor of locked doors there, maybe the odd roomful of dead birds. Outside in the woods there’s a ‘rath’, a hill fort or barrow-mound whose sides, when you start to climb them, seem oddly steep, and when you reach the top you find yourself looking out over the country for miles around, even though, when looked at from below, the top should surely be much lower than the surrounding trees. The local pub is no better. It has a wall display depicting an ancient custom wherein local boys, on one particular day of the year, are allowed to kill wrens and walk around displaying their bodies in little cages, like little musical sacrifices. It’s a custom that died out over most of the country many years ago, but these are recent photographs.

Fairport_Convention-Liege_LThe basic story of Wylding Hall borrows as much from the legends of real folk-rock as it does from haunted houses and fairy tales: in an interview over at the Coode Street Podcast, Elizabeth Hand mentions Fairport Convention’s renting a house (Farley Chamberlayne) to work on their (excellent) Liege & Leaf album, shortly after a tour-van crash killed two people and injured others; she also mentions Nick Drake, the figure who in part inspired her genius-level guitarist/singer/songwriter Julian Blake, a somewhat otherworldly, overly-distanced member of the band, and the one around whom the supernatural events in the story focus. The book itself takes the form of interview snippets from a documentary about the band’s now-legendary stay at Wylding Hall, recorded forty years after the event. The one member not able to take part is Julian Blake, because he disappeared shortly after the band made their only recordings of the songs they’d been working on. What happened to him? The answer lies in the mysterious figure of ‘the girl’ who appears on the cover of the album, which shows the band standing in front of Wylding Hall. The thing is, none of the band recall seeing ‘the girl’ at the time the photo was taken — she only appeared later, very briefly, when most of the band dismissed her as an over-young and more-than-slightly-fay groupie-type, drawn like a moth to the flame of Julian Blake’s talent. Only, it seems more likely she was the flame and Blake the moth. He was, after all, interested in bringing a little magic into his already spellbinding songwriting…

Eliade_SacredProfaneYoung Julian Blake is fascinated by the idea of ‘sacred time’. He reads Mircea Eliade’s book, The Sacred and the Profane, and explains how ‘When you step into sacred time, you’re actually moving sideways, into a different space that’s inside the normal world.’ This idea, that a period of time can become special, magical, and sequestered from the normal flow, pervades the book in several ways. First there is of course the band’s stay at Wylding Hall: they’ve deliberately stepped out of the contemporary world to concentrate on their own particular magic, the creation of music that is itself trying to evoke a lost time through reviving old folk songs. Sacred time within this sacred time is the single ‘magic hour’ in which they make their one and only recording, out in the gardens at sunset. Then there’s the way the band members, in the present, are looking back, for the documentary, on the ‘sacred time’ of their youth, a golden time highly charged with hippie ideals, intense emotion (‘everyone in love with the wrong person’), casual drugs and rather too much drink. And then there’s the genuinely magical time that operates in Faerie, the way it can reach out and grab a particularly talented musician, and take him out of conventional time altogether, never to be seen again.

US cover

US cover

I knew I was going to like Wylding Hall as soon as I heard the set-up: English folk-rock meets faerie-weird. It’s a short novel (another plus, for me), but although I liked it, I did find it a little unfulfilling, in large part because of the documentary-interview way in which it was told. In those haunted house narratives I mentioned at the start of this review, if you think about the human story, aside from the supernatural one, you see that The Haunting of Hill House is basically about unstable Eleonor Vance’s longing to find a home where she truly fits in, instabilities and all, and finds herself helplessly falling into the clutches of un-sane Hill House; and The Shining is about Jack Torrance’s attempt to get on top of his inner demons (by writing a book), only to find himself unleashing those demons on his own family — aided, of course, by the demonic forces of the Outlook Hotel. These haunted houses act as amplifiers of emotional instability, enactors of inner demons, drawing out the flaws of their chosen victims, those characters most susceptible to their dark charms. The core character of Wylding Hall, from this point of view, is Julian Blake, whose otherworldliness, born of high sensitivity and musical talent, is drawn into the genuine otherworldliness of the faerie realm. But we don’t get access to that story. Blake is no longer around to tell it, and even when he was, he was too closemouthed to let his bandmates in on it enough that they might understand. This means his story — which, for me, would have been the most interesting part of Wylding Hall — is absent, or to be glimpsed only from very sparse hints, leaving the result more a straightforward horror story (genius musician snatched away by the supernatural) than an investigation of why he allowed himself to be snatched.

It’s like the difference between Arthur Machen’s ‘The White People’ (which gives an insider’s view of slipping into the faerie realm) and his ‘The Great God Pan’, a purely external view of a supernatural horror. Of those two, I prefer ‘The White People’, though ‘The Great God Pan’ is the more well-known. Of course, in the days of folk ballads, it was enough that a musician be exceptionally talented to explain why the faeries should want him. But I’d have liked a little more than that.

What books do best

I love films. I love music. I love games, comics, paintings, the lot. But most of all I love books, stories told in words. I’m not going to argue that my chosen favourite form of art/entertainment (if only there was one word that meant both and didn’t sound either pretentious or disparaging) is better than the others, because it’s not. They’re all means of telling stories, or saying interesting things, and they all work in different ways. The ones that work best are the ones that use the strengths of their form to the best advantage. In Watchmen, for instance, Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore deliberately used one of the advantages of comics to do something which can’t be translated into film — the fact that you can pack a lot of detail into each panel, and the reader can linger, and flip back and forth, to really absorb that detail. That’s why, when watching the recent film of Watchmen, I kept thinking, “But they’ve missed out… And what about… And where’s..?” All the way through.

But what do books do best? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

The weaknesses are obvious. Unlike all the other art-forms I listed above, they can only say one thing at a time — worse, they can only build up what they want to say one word at a time, which means you have to put a lot of work in just to get to the first thing they want to say. Music can be instantly impressive; the first shot of a film can just grab you; a splash page opening a comic takes you right into its story; but even “Call me Ishmael” has to be read one word at a time.

What are books’ strengths? I’ll take my answer not from a book, but a song:

Book after book
I get hooked
Every time the writer
Talks to me like a friend

— “Spaceball Ricochet“, Marc Bolan

Books talk to you, just like people do. Alright, you don’t see them waving their hands and pulling faces while they’re talking (books are more like telephone conversations, in that way), and they don’t allow you to talk back (or they don’t listen if you do), but although books are the least like our sensory experience of the world (mostly pictures and sounds), they are, I think, the most like our experience of people.

Some books (like some people) talk at you, and expect you to believe what they say because it’s they who say it. Such books are written by Authors, and their Authorship comes from them regarding themselves as Authorities — and that’s a little too close to regarding themselves as what Philip Pullman called The Authority in His Dark Materials, i.e., God. (Books written by Adults for children all too easily fall into this trap. Don’t they, my dearie wittle ones?)

The best books, though, are written by human beings, not Authors. They talk to you as an equal, as another human being, and don’t try to be clever or sophisticated or loud, or to put on airs:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson.

Idle reader: without my swearing to it, you can believe that I would like this book, the child of my understanding, to be the most beautiful, the most brilliant, and the most discreet that anyone could imagine. But I have not been able to contravene the natural order; in it, like begets like.

Don Quixote, Cervantes, translated by Edith Grossman

When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along to an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami

Ever since people started reading books silently (Saint Ambrose is recorded as the first to engage in this peculiar practice), when books speak, they do so inside your head. In this way, they can seem not so much to be speaking to you, as to be the result of your eavesdropping on someone else’s thoughts, their own interior monologue raised to the clarity of complete and artistically ordered sentences.

What goes on in other people’s heads is, of course, one of the great mysteries of life. We can be reasonably sure that if I see a red penguin and you see a red penguin then the sensory impression received by our eyes is roughly the same thing, but the thoughts that go through our separate heads (“A red penguin? Am I insane?!” and “Ah, the Red Penguin returns…”) can be as different as, well, two books on a shelf.

But it’s in books that we have the solution to this mystery. Books allow the most intimate contact with the inside of another person’s head, because the writer doesn’t have to talk to us like a friend, they can go one better, and talk to us as they would to themselves, either about themselves, or (if they’re pure narrator) about the story, situation or picture they see:

The Piano Teacher, Erika Kohut, bursts like a whirlwind into the apartment she shares with her mother. Mama likes calling Erika her little whirlwind, for the child can be an absolute speed demon. She is trying to escape her mother. Erika is in her late thirties. Her mother is old enough to be her grandmother.

The Piano Teacher, Elfriede Jelinek, translated by Joachim Neugroschel

Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls.

Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake

A-hind of hill, ways off to sun-set-down, is sky come like as fire, and walk I up in way of this, all hard of breath, where is grass colding on I’s feet and wetting they.

Voice of the Fire, Alan Moore.

A good book opens up a world and surrounds you in it. Because it starts inside your head, if read right, it replaces your senses and becomes your world, while you read it. One word at a time you go into all the strangeness, wonder, fear and peculiarity of being another human being. Which, you of course find, is just like being yourself. Only, with the furniture moved about a bit.