Thursday, November 21, 2013

Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House

It's been about forever since I've written a book review here (... maybe I've never written a book review here?  Perhaps that was a different blog, long, long ago?), but I've been making time to read again lately and therefore have been Thinking All Sorts of Thoughts about books and wanted to share some of them.

The book that's been on my mind lately is Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House.  I meant to read it before Halloween to get myself into an appropriately spooky mindset, but as it turned out I didn't get to it until the first week of November.  Oh well.

Shirley Jackson and I have a bit of history because I'm a huge, huge fan of her short stories.  The funny thing is that I've been meaning to read Hill House for ages because I like haunted house stories, but somehow I never put together the fact that my short story hero also wrote what is arguably the most famous haunted house story ever.  But anyway....

The Haunting of Hill House is about a group of strangers who are called together because of their various experiences with the supernatural by Dr. John Montague to scientifically investigate a reportedly haunted mansion.  The mansion does not disappoint: there are plenty of unexplained noises and events to terrify the house's inhabitants, but the brilliance of this ghost story is that the ghosts don't even show up until halfway through the book.

Shirley Jackson's gift is writing characters.  It is clear that the people Dr. Montague invites to join him in his investigation are already haunted before they even arrive.  Eleanor, the character we get to know the best, experienced poltergeist activity in her home as a child and has grown bitter because she was responsible for caring for her invalid mother for many years until her mother's recent death.  Theodora, a devil-may-care free spirit, joined the team as a lark, although there are hints that she may be an outcast in her own way.  The final member of the group, Luke, is the heir to the house although no one has lived in it for many years.  The black sheep of his family, he hides his feelings under a smooth, dandyish exterior.

The house is a character in itself, built by the eccentric Hugh Crain eighty years before the story takes place.  None of the angles of the house are quite right, and the downstairs rooms are laid out in a spiral, with the inner rooms having no access to daylight or the outside whatsoever, leaving the inhabitants slightly queasy and disoriented.  The usual haunted house trappings are all there: musty Victorian decor, a creepy caretaker and cook duo, and a paranoid, spinster daughter who hanged herself in the library.

The first three-quarters of the book is wonderful.  The characters are getting to know each other, and the omniscient narrator gives us glimpses into Eleanor's thoughts as the characters settle into the house.  Eleanor's recurring theme is "Journeys end in lovers meeting", although she does not know whether Luke, Theo, or the house itself is the lover she would meet at the end of her journey.  The house is quiet the first two days the investigators are in it, and the tension the reader feels while waiting for the scary stuff to start is great.

I won't give away the ending because you really, really need to read this for yourself, but I've noticed with two of my favorite books: The Haunting of Hill House and Jack London's The Sea Wolf, the endings are totally unsatisfactory.  I've been thinking a lot about why that is since I finished Hill House, and I think that in both cases, the authors created unbeatable bad guys.  Hill House is too big, too creepy, to *haunted*, whether by the ghosts that were already there or by the baggage the characters bring with them, to be figured out and explained.  In The Sea Wolf, Wolf Larsen, the sadistic, larger-than-life captain of the seal-hunting schooner the Ghost, rescues the soft, city-bred progatonist Humphrey from a ferry wreck and subjects him to the brutality of the sea for the long seal-hunting season.  Aside from the character of Wolf Larsen, the plot of The Sea Wolf is actually rather weak, but Wolf Larsen is one of the great characters in American literature.  The trouble with him is that he's too strong, too invincible.  Jack London had to resort to a sort of deus ex machina to get rid of him because he was too powerful for Humphrey or any other character to beat him.  It is the same for Hill House.  Shirley Jackson brilliantly created a character that was too strong for anyone to best.  At the end of the novel, Hill House hasn't given up any of its secrets, and, somehow, even though it's painfully frustrating for the reader, it works.