Monday, September 19, 2011

The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

This is a creepy novel, without question.  I think two or three parts of the book, in particular, are the eeriest, creepy-crawliest things I've read in a long time.  I have a feeling Shirley Jackson won't be to everyone's taste.  Some modern readers (especially those who enjoy graphic, explicit gore) may even be bored, but this is definitely more my style of horror.  Tension, suspense, "the unseen" vs. "in your face" scariness, slightly (or not so slightly) off-kilter characters and dialogue, uncertainty of the reality of your main character's perceptions.  This is the kind of writing that stays with you a while.  I think I may finally have had my fill of being creeped-out, though, for the time being.  I'm ready for something lighter.

More detailed (even rambling) reactions & observations (which may be spoilerish in nature):

•  The writing style of the first part of the novel (most particularly) reminds me of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which probably means it's Shirley Jackson's usual style.  It's haunting, dark, bizarre in spots, familiar in others.  I recognize aspects of myself in Eleanor.  Some of her daydreams as she drives to Hill House had me nodding in understanding.  Recognizing parts of yourself in a character makes it all the more disturbing when you then have to watch her slowly losing her grasp of reality.

•  Suffocation seems to be one of the central themes of Hill House.  The descriptions of the house and its situation make it feel buried in plushness and lushness... drowning in close, silent darkness.   Also, I dare anyone not to notice the frequent cropping-up of references to "mother". 

•  What is real in this book?  It's frustrating, never knowing, but I'm sure that was the intention.  How much of what Eleanor hears and sees is real?  Is Theodora really that cruel?  Is Luke actually so clueless?  Or is Eleanor distorting what they say and do?

•  Why does Shirley Jackson love the word "concretely" so much?  ;o)

•  The single biggest question one has when reading this novel-- the point that requires the greatest suspension of disbelief-- is simply this:  Why in the heck don't these people leave that creepy, horrible place?!  Nell (Eleanor) feels she has no other option-- stay at Hill House or go back to live under the thumb of her sister-- but what of the others?  You'd think that what they experience would be enough to make most people flee the very next day.  Dr. Montague has some motivation to stay, I suppose (research for his book), but what about Theodora and Luke?  Also, why are Mrs. Montague and Arthur apparently immune to the house's evil?  We are given to understand that everyone else who's come to stay over the years has been horrified and left within just a few days... I guess one could argue that they simply haven't been in residence long enough yet, or maybe that the house has (by that time) focused its attention on Nell and can't be bothered with the comic relief.

•  Speaking of Mrs. Montague and Arthur-- they do seem to be comic relief, but they are (or mostly she is) also horrible... Mrs. Montague is such a strange character.  (I don't remember her in the 1999 film version of the story, but then I don't remember much about that, except that it was weird and not very good.  Some of the dialogue in the novel felt very familiar, though, so I know it must've been incorporated in at least one film version I've seen.)  She reminds me forcibly of the banker's wife (Mrs. Maxwell, thank you, Google) in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, but there's something a tiny bit sinister in her, too.  She's so utterly cold and selfish-- and so blind to what's happening under her very nose.  The combination of her yoga lessons and the planchette (before it turns goose-fleshy) also reminded me, fleetingly, of Miss Mapp in E.F. Benson's Lucia novels.  (Read them to find out why. (g)) 

•  This part confused me:  The night when the four central characters are hiding in the same bedroom, there's this sentence:  "Then there came, suddenly, quiet, and the secret creeping silence they all remembered..."  See, I thought the men didn't hear/experience the pounding on the earlier night.  So how could they all remember the sudden silence?  It's a small detail, but still it jumped out and bothered me.

•  Eleanor can be so completely pathetic at times... It's sad, really, but also somehow disgusting.  The part where she practically begs Theodora to let her live with her after they leave Hill House... It's degrading.  But then Theodora is so cold... I don't know what we're supposed to think.  How accurate a view of Theodora's behavior are we getting, here (and elsewhere)?  Is she really being so harsh-- so mean-- to the obviously fragile Eleanor?  Why?   It makes no sense!  (People don't make sense, sometimes, self.)  These people sometimes seem to be very aware of Eleanor's fragility, then they go and ignore her, taunt her... Unless what we're getting is Eleanor's distorted viewpoint...  But even assuming that, why doesn't Dr. Montague notice her odd behavior and send her home (much) sooner?  

  Occasionally, the others say things (such as Luke's talk about the house as a mother and reiteration of Nell's mantra, "journeys end in lovers meeting") that make it seem as though they're going mad, too.  I can only assume this is being filtered through our unreliable... not narrator, exactly, but main character.  

•  Dr. Montague is a bit of a dunce.  Otherwise, he might have been my favorite character of the bunch (simply because he seems so normal and canny compared to the others)-- but I have a hard time forgiving him for his inability to predict what was coming at the end.  He should've known better.  Too wound up in his "research" and his book to protect the lives in his care.

•  Mrs. Dudley is a creeper (as they say) for most of the book.  You almost suspect that she might be "touched", with her repetitive insistence on the keeping of the schedule.  But then there's that very odd section near the end where Nell eavesdrops on Mrs. Dudley and Mrs. Montague's conversation.  Mrs. Dudley suddenly sounds normal-- even sympathetic.  Befuddling.  

•  Ok.  So there's the 1999 movie adaption and one from 1963.  (I'm not sure I've seen the latter, but I'll try, now, out of curiosity.)  I thought that The House on Haunted Hill (you know, the one with Vincent Price, where he invites a group of total strangers to stay in the rented haunted house to celebrate the birthday of his wife?) was also based on / inspired by this novel, but any connection between the two must be extremely tenuous.  (Possibly the makers of the movie thought the title would remind people of the book and draw in a larger audience.)  The movie, so far as I recall, is not genuinely frightening, but least one aspect of the movie that makes more sense than the novel is that the guests have to spend the night in the house in order to receive a substantial amount of money.  Not enough to risk your life or sanity over, but at least there's some reason for them to stay when things start getting scary.  Plus, the doors are locked at some point, so that they no longer have the option to leave.  (Yes, very safe practice, that.) 

•  I'll have to see if I can get my hands on anything else Shirley Jackson wrote (apart from "The Lottery" and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, both of which I have read).  I find her style intriguing-- even darkly spellbinding-- but I think she has a depressing effect on me and requires something light and life-affirming as an antidote.