Thursday, August 29, 2013

Review: "The Haunting of Hill House" by Shirley Jackson

"The Haunting of Hill House" by Shirley Jackson, the well-known author of  the amazing "The Lottery", is such a masterpiece that I find myself forced to go against one of my self-imposed rules. I shall warn you.

 In this review I will not only spoil the plot, but I will quote directly from the book, ending paragraph included.  Continue reading at your own risk.

Shirley Jackson

When "The Haunting of Hill House" (thereafter "THoHH") was published in 1959, Jackson was already known ("The Lottery" was published in 1948). 
At first, it might be surprising that such a provocative author decided to write about one of the most classical topics in modern literature, the ghost story and, even worse, a ghost in a haunted house. After all, Le Fanus's stories were publishing almost a century earlier.
As puzzling as it might be, Jackson is able to manage an outstanding novel using several characterization techniques that are now over-used, including in many movies.

The book's opening paragraph describes the milieu and its story so powerfully that it's a piece of art by itself. This is how Shirley Jackson introduces us to Hill House:

"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."
Now, isn't that paragraph incredible? To me, the shocking part is the description of Hill House as "not sane." How can a house be sane or insane? I think that those two words make the house so vividly alive that it's almost disturbing to think about it. Not content, THoHH's opening paragraph punches the reader once more: "whatever walked there, walked alone." This way, the house is linked together and forever to whatever is supposed to be in there.
Please notice that at this point, the reader is unaware of the reliability of the narrator.

Disneyland's "Haunted Mansion". Grim Grinning Ghosts come out to socialize!
THoHH's plot follows a sort of expedition at Hill House organized by a professor, Doctor John Montague, interested in supernatural events. He invites three people that claim to have had previous supernatural events to Hill House. 
Eleanor Vance, is a weak individual that basically spent her life trying to help her ill mother and never enjoyed complete freedom. She can be considered the main character of the story, although in reality the main character is Hill House. Her being weak makes her also very sensitive to possible ghostly events.
Theodora ("Theo") is a strong willed woman and quite possibly a lesbian. She can be considered a sort of cultural rebel. 
Luke Sanderson "was a liar. He was also a thief. His aunt, who was the owner of Hill House, was fond of pointing out that her nephew had the best education, the best clothes, the best taste, and the worst companions of anyone she had ever known; she would have leaped at any chance to put him safely away for a few weeks."

After the characters are briefly introduced, the back story of Eleanor is narrated and culminates on her arrival to Hill House:

"She turned her car onto the last stretch of straight drive leading her directly, face to face, to Hill House and, moving without thought, pressed her foot on the  brake to stall the car and sat, staring. 

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."

Haunted House in Waxahachie, TX is now the "Catfish Plantation" restaurant.
Featured on Discovery Channel as a haunted place. The food is quite good; it's always nice to be in a Victorian house.

Reading the various chapters two things are easy to notice. First and foremost, not a single character is to be liked. I can't be positive that Jackson did it on purpose, but it's almost impossible to relate or prefer anyone.
Secondly, this story is terrifying but not in a modern Stephen King-ish sense. The true horror in my opinion is not really what happens in the house (if anything happened), but how easily social interactions quickly degrade. Theo and Eleanor start as best friends (lovers?) and they end up being as enemies.

Eleanor is portrayed as the most sensitive, therefore she is at the core of the story. The impression is that the house is focused on her, but during the entire time she is in the house we are not aware if she is simply going crazy by herself and nothing is really happening. After all, she lived as a sort of recluse and passive individual.

The book is just a few pages, a short novel, but is packed of dialogue and of Eleanor's inner thoughts which might make it a little slow for modern audiences. However, from a psychological and supernatural point of view the book remains a gem. Observing how Eleanor degenerates is quite an experience, up to her end in this world. Suicide is possibly her only truly free action and that's what she commits when the other characters decide that she is going too far. In her foolishness she makes her last decision in front of them:

"With what she perceived as quick cleverness she pressed her foot down hard on the accelerator; they can‟t run fast enough to catch me this time, she thought, but by now they must be beginning to realize; I wonder who notices first? Luke, almost certainly. I can hear them calling now, she thought, and the little footsteps running through Hill House and the soft sound of the hills pressing closer. I am really doing it, she thought, turning the wheel to send the car directly at the great tree at the curve of the driveway, I am really doing it, I am doing this all by myself, now, at last; this is me, I am really really really doing it by myself.
In the unending, crashing second before the car hurled into the tree she thought clearly, Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Why don‟t they stop me?"

This is how Eleanor dies. Looking for freedom, but finding herself doubting about her own choice, the only real choice she ever did. Is she ultimately free or not? We'll never know.

As I mentioned earlier, one other thing we'll never know is if the house was really haunted or if the happenings were a fruit of self-suggestion. Shirley Jackson gives us a clue in the beautiful ending paragraph, which mirror the firsts, and is aimed to keep the house... alive.

"Dr. Montague finally retired from active scholarly pursuits after the cool, almost contemptuous reception of his preliminary article analyzing the psychic phenomena of Hill House. Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its 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."

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