This post is a contribution to Witch Week hosted by Lory of Emerald City Book Review celebrating witchy, ghosty and fantasy works by American authors, culminating in a readalong of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. For more information on the week go here and find tweets on Twitter with the hashtag
Title: The Haunting of Hill House
Author: Shirley Jackson
Publisher: The Stephen King Horror Library, Viking Penguin
Device: Hard cover
For a plot summary
… the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice.[i]
Four people have gathered at the suspected haunted and remotely located Hill House to take part in an experiment developed by university professor Dr. Montague who hopes to find scientific evidence for the existence of psychic phenomena. Professor Montague has had a life-long interest in the manifestation of psychic experiences and believes he has found the perfect house to run the experiment. To assist him, he has selected two individuals, Theodora (Theo), a telepath and Eleanor Vance, who experienced psychic phenomena as a child. The fourth house guest is Luke Sanderson representing the owners of the house and is the house’s heir. He is also the group’s skeptic.
…This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern…reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity. It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed.[ii]
Hill House is the quintessential haunted house: a Gothic maze of rooms laid out to confuse, sculptures that move when you turn your head, cold spots on the floor, unseen voices laughing and crying, doors that close by themselves, bedroom doors pounding in the middle of the night and the requisite husband and wife caretakers, who scare the guests with their suspicious demeanor and the fact that they leave the house at 6pm, “So there won’t be anyone around if you need help…in the night…in the dark.”[iii]
The house has dubious beginnings and a bizarre, sad history. It was built by Hugh Crain for his wife and two daughters in the late 1880s, but on the day they were to move in Mrs. Crain’s carriage crashed on the long driveway and she died. Mr. Crain brought his daughters in to live, but any chance of happiness or lightheartedness died with Mrs. Crain. The sisters grew up and the younger one married and moved away, while the older one continued to live in the house, but throughout the decades they constantly argued over the house’s inheritance. One night during a medical emergency the older sister died while calling out for her young caretaker, who had snuck out in the night to meet a man. She continued to live in the house, as the older sister named her heir, but she never recovered from her negligence and the younger sister’s attempts to get the house back and she died, a suspected suicide. The house has become uninhabitable. Tenants, who lease the house for months, scurry out in three days never to be heard from again.
Against this backdrop, Shirley Jackson skillfully sets up the story to be told from Eleanor’s point of view, whose last 11 years as caretaker of an ungrateful and selfish mother has left her broken and tortured. She survives by living in a fantasy world where she is the star, the princess, the lost child welcomed home, a woman who is loved. By the time she arrives at Hill House her inner life is rich with imagination and a narcissism fostered by years of isolation and humiliation. It is a few months after her mother has died and she is ecstatic that she was invited on this adventure, that she is wanted, that she is part of this group. And that is the key to painfully self-conscious Eleanor, “who belongs, who is talking easily, who is sitting by the fire with her friends.”[iv]
As for actual psychic phenomena, for actual experiences of menacing ghosts or spirits making their presences known, do they happen? Yes, things happen in the house and out in the grounds. But do they happen because the house is haunted? Or do they happen because they are expected to? Is it mass hysteria, “subterranean waters” or true possession?
As the guests sleep on the second night after their arrival, Eleanor is dreaming of her mother pounding on the wall of her bedroom as she did every night to get her attention. Eleanor awakes telling her mother she is coming, but then realizes she is at Hill House and the pounding she hears is coming from the doors at the other end of the hallway. Running into Theo’s adjoining room both realize it is getting closer.
It sounded, Eleanor thought, like a hollow noise, a hollow bang, as though something were hitting the doors with an iron kettle, or an iron bar, or an iron glove. It pounded regularly for a minute and then suddenly more softly, and then again in a quick fury, seeming to be going methodically from door to door…“Go away, go away!” And there was complete silence. Now I’ve done it, Eleanor thinks, It was looking for the room with someone inside. It started again as though it had been listening, waiting to hear their voices and what they said, to identify them…waiting to hear if they were afraid…The iron crash came against their door, and both of them lifted their eyes in horror, because the hammering was against the upper edge of the door, and the sickening degrading cold came in waves from whatever was outside the door.
It had found them. Since Eleanor would not open the door, it was going to make its own way in…Little pattings came from around the door frame, small seeking sounds, feeling the edges of the door, trying to sneak a way in. The doorknob was fondled, and Eleanor, whispering, asked,”is it locked?” The little sticky sounds moved on around the door frame and then, as though a fury caught whatever was outside, the crashing came again and Eleanor and Theodora saw the wood of the door tremble and shake, and the door move against its hinges.
“You can’t get in,” said Eleanor wildly, and again there was a silence, as though the house listened with attention to her words, content to wait. A thin little giggle came, in a breath of air through the room, a little mad rising laugh…and Eleanor heard it all up and down her back, a little gloating laugh moving past them around the house, and then she heard the doctor and Luke calling from the stairs and, mercifully, it was over.[v]
As breathtaking and real as this was for Eleanor and Theo, it turns out Dr. Montague and Luke had been chasing a dog that somehow got into the house and was racing up and down the hall until the two men chased it outside. And from the outside of the house to when they came in, they heard nothing, only the women yelling. When Eleanor opened the bedroom door, there “wasn’t even a scratch on the wood, nor on any of the other doors…”[vi]
But a few days later, the same inexplicable noise occurs again, this time with the four of them in the same room.
A few days after the first experience with the door banging, Mrs. Montague shows up with an assistant and her Planchette device in order to get in touch with the spirits of the house, to free them from their earthly burdens and to help them on their way. In essence, she barges in and tries to take over the experiment convinced that whatever her husband had planned, hers is better for the house. But the house does not seem to recognize her because, when the second experience with the banging doors occurs, she and her assistant, both in separate rooms, have slept soundly through the night.
As time passes at Hill House Eleanor begins to sink into madness and hallucinate, climaxing with a middle of the night foray through the rooms and hallways of the house running from Theo, Dr. Montague and Luke as they try to find her. “Hugh Crain, will you come and dance with me?” she says to his statue, then running into the library and up the iron spiral stairway to the turret, but it would not open. “Make it open, make it open or they’ll catch me.” I can’t get away, she thought and looked down at the assembled house guests at the bottom of the stairway. “Theodora? I can’t get out; the door’s been nailed shut.”[vii]
As I said above, Jackson tells the story from Eleanor’s point of view. And in an interesting style of writing, Eleanor is both first and third person in many of the paragraphs. It adds to the fantasy world she lives in where what she thinks and what is actually happening is blurred.
I would also like to make the case that none of this actually happened at all. The story is not only told from Eleanor’s point of view, but that also she is in every scene. If there is dialogue among the other characters, Eleanor is in the room and notices them talking, presumably, she believes, about her. No one goes out of any room or any space and has an experience. This is all about Eleanor. The tragedy at the end (a spoiler, so you’ll have read the book!) is not a surprise and the only way Eleanor, who just wants to be wanted and who believes the house wants her, could live that. To be more precise, I am saying this was all a dream, a fantasy made up to explain and live out the sickness in Eleanor’s head caused from years of being neglected and made invisible by the people and circumstances of her life.
Whether this was all an elaborate dream or the story of a woman’s descent in to madness, this is a psychological thriller par excellence. Jackson leaves us wondering, “What the heck just happened?” Was the house haunted and evil and so caused the manifestations? Were they caused by sensitive people who made them happen? Does mass hysteria explain it all? Was it Eleanor’s madness that attracted all manner of malevolent phenomena? Or was it just her imagination and a way to feel special in her own mind?
If you have read The Haunting of Hill House or other works by Shirley Jackson, what do you think?
This book qualifies for the Reading New England challenge