Monday, 29 October 2012

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

So, it being the season of mists and all that, I decided that I needed to re-read some much loved ghost stories, and so, I have started with this:

(Be warned, fellow traveller, here be spoilers)

The Haunting, Robert Wise's adaptation of Jackson's novel, is perhaps my favourite horror movie. And reading this I can see again what a brilliant adaptation the film is. Wise, wisely, chose not to show any ghosts in the film, and one can argue that the reason for the absence, visually at least, is that there aren't any ghosts in the novel; not in the popular sense of the term. From the start of Jackson's novel, it is clear that we are in the hands of an accomplished writer. The Haunting of Hill House has one of the most oft-quoted opening paragraphs of any horror novel. I won't quote it here, but you can easily look it up.
     From the start, this is Eleanor's story. She is our focus character and her journey to Hill House reveals much about her psychology. She is desperate to escape her drab life, a neurotic spinster living with her sister and her family. She fantasies about the houses and landscapes she sees on her journey, often imagining herself being rescued by some princely character. It becomes clear that Eleanor is fleeing towards Hill House, bringing her insecurities and emotional problems with her, thinking of her coming time at the house as an escape. But, as a writer friend of mine once said, the best ghost stories are when a haunted person meets a haunted place. And Eleanor is very much a haunted character.
     What makes this such a fascinating read is Eleanor's interaction with Theodora, a seemingly liberated woman who, like Eleanor, has escaped towards Hill House, leaving behind a fragile relationship. The sexual tension between Eleanor and Theo becomes clear very quickly. Theo realises a truth about Eleanor that she herself cannot see. Theo is also possessed of some small pyschic ability that enables her to read people more clearly than others. I would argue that it's a combination of Eleanor's insecurities and the focusing nature of Theo's ability that brings about the core hauntings in the novel. Consider that the majority of the supernatural instances are focused around Eleanor. To begin with they are messages telling Eleanor to go home. The wall of one corridor is daubed with just such a message. Could it be that this is actually Eleanor somehow warning herself, that if she stays in Hill House her true nature will be revealed to herself? She clearly comes to fear the feelings Theo is stirring up within her and we know, from Doctor Montague's research, that strange physical occurrences have taken place around Eleanor before. At times of great distress, she appears to have a talent to make things happen. Once Eleanor releases that she isn't going to escape the things Hill House, or Theo, have found within her, she turns her anger on her companion. Theo's clothes are found to be torn and covered in blood. Again, Eleanor denies she has anything to do with it, but reading between the lines we can see the origins of this haunting.
   That's not to say that Hill House doesn't have a certain power of its own. Jackson makes it clear that this is an evil house. She describes it as almost pulling itself together as it's constructed, as though some dark force has built this shell of brick and wood about itself; a place to which it can gather the disturbed and broken.
    But this isn't a relentlessly bleak novel. There are humorous moments to be found in Jackson's book. Mr and Mrs Dudley, the dour care-taker couple, are a joy and Doctor Montague's wife barrels into the last act like some 50s Derek Acorah, ready to guide the disturbed spirits of the the house to their rest. Naturally she doesn't succeed, but it's because she doesn't understand the haunting that she doesn't get the results she craves. Doctor Montague does finally understand what is going on and, realising the danger she's in, sends Eleanor home. But, as we know, Hill House had Eleanor from the first and won't let her go. On driving away she accelerates towards a tree on the drive of the house and ends her life in front of the place that tormented her so with her own insecurities.
     The Haunting of Hill House is undoubtedly a masterpiece of horror fiction; a revelatory tale showing us the true nature of ghosts which was written at a time when ghosts were only just emerging from their shrouds and their chains to be something more interesting and much much more frightening.
     This is the touchstone for the modern ghost story and, in itself, truly a great of American literature.

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