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.

Night Visitors by Julia Briggs

Night Visitors, Julia Briggs’s 1977 study of ‘The rise and fall of the English ghost story’, employs a bit of (potentially fatal) boundary-blurring early on, first as regards the term ‘ghost story’:

‘It may be apparent that the term ‘ghost story’ is being employed with something of the latitude that characterises the general usage, since it can denote not only stories about ghosts, but about possession and demonic bargains, spirits other than those of the dead, including ghouls, vampires, werewolves, the ‘swarths’ of living men and the ‘ghost-soul’ or Doppelgänger.’

NightVisitorsThe second bit of boundary-blurring regards the term ‘English’, as she includes Irish (Sheridan Le Fanu and Oscar Wilde), Welsh (Arthur Machen), Scottish (Robert Louis Stevenson), American (Henry James and Vernon Lee), and French (Guy de Maupassant) writers in her study. (And if Henry James is excused because he was living in England, what of Kipling, who was living in India?) What makes this so potentially fatal is that her thesis — that the ghost story, as a form, is dead, indeed ‘has become a vehicle for nostalgia, a formulaic exercise content merely to recreate a Dickensian or Monty Jamesian atmosphere. It no longer has any capacity for growth or adaption.’ — and her reasons for it, can perhaps only be taken to apply to the strictly defined ghost story, and perhaps only the English version of it, certainly not the breadth of weird fiction she covers in this study. After all, when the book was published, a horror boom was in full swing, with not only countless anthologies of old ghost and horror stories being published (driven, no doubt, by Hammer’s popularity in the 60s), but also horror novels hitting the bestseller charts for perhaps the first time since Dracula, thanks mostly to Stephen King, but helped by a Brit or two (James Herbert, Ramsey Campbell). So it seems Briggs’s argument should be that the purely English, purely literary, purely ghostly, purely short story may have become moribund, but that the rest of what was taken in by the boundary-blurred remit of her survey was booming.

There is another way to look at it, perhaps only possible now the book is over four decades old. This is that the ghost story achieved a brief and uncharacteristic literary relevance to the fin-de-siècle and Edwardian eras, then stepped back into the crypt of popular, generic fiction where it had always lurked, and where it remains to this day. And what, I’d say, Night Visitors is good for is its look at this brief foray into literary respectability, and why this phase came to an end. (Which perhaps also answers why it came about in the first place.)

So, why did it end?

In short, Freud and the Great War:

‘The Great War had not only trivialised invented horrors by comparison, it had also catalysed changes in society which affected the ghost story less directly but no less fundamentally. Atheism and agnosticism were now more widely tolerated, and totally materialistic philosophies were far commoner than heretofore. The rigid conventions of sexual behaviour which had influenced middle and upper class attitudes, began to be flouted more openly… Now the unconscious itself had become the subject of close scientific scrutiny rather than the more philosophic, often more amateur speculation of the previous century.’

NightVisitors_backSupernatural stories, at the end of the Victorian Age and into the Edwardian, achieved a new relevance and richness thanks to their exploration of the darker areas of human psychology that, after the World Wars, were more explicitly addressed using the newly-accepted scientific terminology of psychoanalysis. (Though some, between the two World Wars, like Blackwood, went to the opposite extreme and used the technical language of the occult.) The ‘psychic doctors’ of Le Fanu, Blackwood and Hodgson had been replaced by psychoanalysts, and the only recourse for the popular ghost story was a retreat into formal conventions, achieving a sort of final perfection in the hands of M R James, who:

‘…did not share the concern shown by other writers (Blackwood or Le Fanu, for instance) with the significance of spirits, the state of mind in which ghosts are seen, or the condition of a universe that permits the maleficent returning dead.’

But Briggs nevertheless finds certain writers who continued to make meaningful use of the ghost, each in their individual way. Elizabeth Bowen, for instance, whose 1945 collection The Demon Lover ‘reveals her ghosts as somehow necessary to their victims, occupying spiritual voids left by the shock of war.’ Or Walter de la Mare, in whose work ‘death has taken over the role which love traditionally plays in fiction, as the most central and significant experience of life…’ She doesn’t mention Robert Aickman, but he’s an author, I’d say, whose ‘strange stories’ — the closest thing the ghost story came to a reinvention in the 20th century — were enabled, not negated, by Freud.

Meanwhile, the 1970s, when Night Visitors appeared, had a definite tendency to render its horrors in gaudy, gory, sensationalistic cinema, often rendered as fleshily physical as the censors (and the special effects) would allow. The psychological subtlety of the ghostly tale, as championed by Briggs, was perhaps not so much dead but drowned out.

Julia Briggs, interviewed for a 1995 documentary, A Pleasant Terror: The Life & Ghosts of M.R. James

Julia Briggs, interviewed for a 1995 documentary, A Pleasant Terror: The Life & Ghosts of M.R. James

The fundamental human experiences that ghosts, as literary devices, were used to explore, though — secrets, repressions, guilt, loss — remain, and always will. Those dark, cobwebby corners of the psyche can’t have been entirely exorcised. So how were they addressed when the ghost story was superseded?

Modern psychological thrillers, whose killers are too often endowed with near-supernatural abilities, provide similar grounds for exploring the darker regions of the psyche. People may not be haunted, but they are stalked. Detectives and criminal profilers try to get into the minds of the killers they’re tracking, as though working on the assumption that these psychos are their own, personal Doppelgängers. The wrenching twists and revelations of a story like Gone Girl — a ghostly title, surely — may not be spiritual, but they tick the other boxes in the formula Briggs provides for what the ghost in the ghost story represents:

‘…the eruption of the tip of the spiritual iceberg, the sudden sense of the existence of previously unknown modes of being that undermined and ultimately invalidated a comfortable confidence in the world of appearances.’

All of these are ghostly tropes, remade for a disbelieving age. (A pity they don’t work as well, for me. I need that hint of the weird, it seems.)

Briggs finishes her study by saying:

‘That bulging, cobwebby box which had so long been clamped down to prevent its terrors escaping has at last been opened, to reveal nothing at all…’

And it’s true, nothing’s there. But that’s probably because he’s standing behind you, with a knife.

Three Types of Ghost Story

Hill Woman in BlackI’ve been reading a few ghost stories lately. Most recently Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (having already seen Nigel Kneale’s 1989 TV film, and the recent Hammer version), though I found it wanting in a way I didn’t with, say, Dark Matter, or my recent re-read of The Turn of the Screw. Thinking about why this was has led to a little bit of theorising about three types of ghost stories and how they work. So here goes.

The first, and purest, type of ghost story revels entirely in the protagonist’s horror of the supernatural. To make it work, the ordinariness of both the protagonist and their everyday world has to be clearly established, so when the supernatural makes its appearance, it feels truly weird and frightening. In this type of ghost story, the ‘ghost’ doesn’t even have to be a ghost, in the sense of a undead human spirit. M R James’s stories are probably the best example of this type, and his ‘ghosts’ are more often demons or elementals — embodied curses or prohibitions — and when they are human, as in, for instance, ‘Number 13’ or ‘Count Magnus’, they’re often supernaturally-tinged sorcerers or necromancers. This type of ghost story is all about technique — the way the supernatural is hinted at, built up, and finally revealed. The only emotion required of the protagonist is terror; details of his or her inner life just get in the way. You don’t get a lot of human insight from M R James’s stories, but you do get a good ghost story.

The Woman from The Woman in Black

from Nigel Kneale’s 1989 adaptation of The Woman in Black

The second type is as much about the protagonist’s horror at the display of human qualities, such as despair or sorrow, driven to such an extreme they’ve become supernatural. The Woman in Black is of this type. (The book is, anyway. I’d say the 2012 Hammer version, upping the cinematic shock value, turned the Woman into a far more demonic creature than she is in the book.) The bulk of conventional Victorian ghost stories are of this type, too. There, a ghost lingers beyond death because either it has been wronged, or has done wrong, and needs to set things right before it can move on. With The Woman in Black, there’s no longer that Victorian feeling of a moral order keeping certain dead souls from moving on till they’ve done what they’re supposed to; rather, it’s the Woman herself, so consumed by sorrow, anger and the need for revenge that she can’t pass on. The thing about this type of ghost story is that the protagonist is still looking on the ghost as something separate — as purely a horror. Things change slightly in the last chapter of The Woman in Black (the narrator comes to experience something of what made the Woman what she is) but not enough to take this story to the next type; the Woman is still seen as something exceptional and horrific, a twisted and rare form of human being, something to be pitied and feared, not empathised with.

The Haunting of Hill House coverThe third type is about how the protagonist’s own despair or sadness is brought to the fore by encounters with a ghost, until they experience it as a manifestation of their own inner world. The ghost still exists to embody (in a ghostly, disembodied way) supernaturally-distorted human qualities, but as much as the protagonist is haunted by the ghost, they’re haunted by something inside themselves too. The ghost and the protagonist’s inner life become entangled to the point where they’re indistinguishable. This is the type of story where the ghost needn’t exist at all — or it can exist in that Tzvetan Todorov hinterland where the story never makes it clear whether the ghost is a ‘real’ ghost or is just an externalisation of the protagonist’s own mental state. Listing examples, I find all my favourites: The Haunting of Hill House, The Influence, The Turn of the Screw.

It has to be said these three types have permeable walls. (Ghosts being ghosts, they’re not going to be stopped from wandering through walls anyway.) Jonathan Miller, after all, turned M R James’s ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ from a ghost story of the first type to the third, by emphasising how the basic character-type of so many of M R James’s protagonists (academic, reserved, distant and somewhat disapproving of lesser human beings) is exactly what makes them so vulnerable to the terror of an isolating ghostly visitation.

Woman in Black 2012Overall, I tend to like examples from the first and third types. The first work best as short stories — shocks work best when kept short. (Cinematic ghost stories, more and more, tend to be overlong examples of the first type, with nothing but shock after shock after shock. I ended up fast-forwarding much of the second half of the 2012 Woman in Black, searching for morsels of story, because I got bored of being supposedly shocked.) The third type mixes the supernatural with the psychological, which is how I prefer it, and this tends to be best when done at length, with plenty of build-up to establish both the protagonist’s psychology and the ‘normality’ of their world.

The trouble, for me, with the second type, is it’s basically disapproving. It’s about marking certain humans (undead ones, admittedly) as separate from ‘us’ (as represented by the protagonist and the rest of a quietly-ordered, functioning society). It seems to be saying that most of us don’t experience extremes of emotion, particularly negative emotion, so we can safely regard those who do as alien, other, horrific. But saying this is also saying that as soon as we experience such extremes, we have to regard ourselves as now separate, alienated, and horrific, too. This is perhaps a very English thing, where reserve and social propriety can make for a ridigly-defined norm, where extreme emotion is met with an embarrassment and disapproval close to horror — meaning you have to repress such emotions, to the point of being haunted by them. Perhaps that’s why the English write so many ghost stories.