The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson
I already briefly wrote about The Haunting of Hill House in my recent March roundup, here. I decided to revisit it though because its first paragraph is just such a brilliant piece of work.
Here’s that first paragraph:
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.
For a piece of gothic fiction I think that’s about as good an opener as one could hope for. Hill House, not insane but instead “not sane”, is of course not a living thing at all and yet immediately we have a sense that in some strange fashion perhaps it is a “live organism”. Alive but undreaming, not sane, patient and implacable.
Much of what’s described here if you give it a moment’s thought is actually pretty prosaic. What do we actually know? Hill House is a detached property set in hills, it’s stood for eighty years and is solidly constructed and well maintained. It is quiet, as you’d hope for an unoccupied rural property.
Put like that it sounds quite a tempting purchase. But then we have that comment that it’s “not sane”, and that wonderful final line: “whatever walked there, walked alone”. For that line alone I’m knocking $50k off my offer price.
Later we have this additional bit of description:
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.
How can a house be kind? And yet, I do know what Jackson means. It is an unforgiving place and while exorcism might work with spirits it can’t fix a house built without regard for comfort or humanity. Is then Hill House actually haunted? Or does it just reflect the cold nature of the man who built it?
It’s into that house that Eleanor Vance comes, one of a group gathered together in an attempt to plumb the house’s secrets. Here’s how Eleanor is introduced:
Eleanor Vance was thirty-two years old when she came to Hill House. The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister. She disliked her brother-in-law and her five-year-old niece, and she had no friends.
Does that sound to you like anyone who should be let anywhere near Hill House? The order of the facts in the paragraph is interesting. We learn first who Eleanor hates, “now that her mother was dead”, which is a distinctly chilling caveat. Then we learn who she dislikes. Then finally that she has no friends.
There’s nothing healthy here. When we actually get to see more of Eleanor she’s quite likable, and yet that opening paragraph is full of hate and dislike. This is not somebody who should be in a place which isn’t fit “for love or for hope”.
Jackson has a tremendous gift for the foreboding. This is a book in which relatively little actually happens. One room has an inexplicable cold spot, but it’s an old house. Doors shut themselves, but it appears they may be balanced to do so besides which the housekeeper seems prone to shutting them even when they’re left blocked open. There are other incidents, noises and writing on walls, but some could be imagination and others plain old human mischief.
What’s truly chilling about Hill House is the atmosphere, and Jackson creates that not through what happens but simply through her choice of language. Jackson says “silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House”, but of course it would. What else would silence do? Still, the effect works.
Too much of this would get silly, and Jackson recognises this too and undercuts herself with humour. In an early exchange the housekeeper Mrs Dudley issues Eleanor with a darkly melodramatic warning:
“I don’t stay after I set out dinner,” Mrs. Dudley went on. “Not after it begins to get dark. I leave before dark comes.”
“I know,” Eleanor said.
“We live over in the town, six miles away.” “Yes,” Eleanor said, remembering Hillsdale.
“So there won’t be anyone around if you need help.”
“We couldn’t even hear you, in the night.”
“I don’t suppose—”
“No one could. No one lives any nearer than the town. No one else will come any nearer than that.”
“I know,” Eleanor said tiredly.
“In the night,” Mrs. Dudley said, and smiled outright. “In the dark,” she said, and closed the door behind her.
Sinister stuff. However, later Eleanor’s fellow guest Theodora arrives and rather bizarrely Mrs. Dudley repeats the entire speech. Although Eleanor has been fairly thoroughly spooked by this point Mrs. Dudley’s warnings do rather lose something with repetition:
“I leave before dark comes,” Mrs. Dudley went on.
“No one can hear you if you scream in the night,” Eleanor told Theodora. She realized that she was clutching at the doorknob and, under Theodora’s quizzical eye, unclenched her fingers and walked steadily across the room. “We’ll have to find some way of opening these windows,” she said.
“So there won’t be anyone around if you need help,” Mrs. Dudley said. “We couldn’t hear you, even in the night. No one could”
“All right now?” Theodora asked, and Eleanor nodded.
“No one lives any nearer than the town. No one else will come any nearer than that.”
“You’re probably just hungry,” Theodora said. “And I’m starved myself”. She set her suitcase on the bed and slipped off her shoes. “Nothing,” she said, “upsets me more than being hungry, I snarl and snap and burst into tears.” She lifted a pair of softly tailored slacks out of the suitcase.
“In the night,” Mrs. Dudley said. She smiled. “In the dark,” she said, and closed the door behind her.
Jackson takes her stock gothic character, the sinister housekeeper, and uses her effectively in the absolutely traditional fashion as an issuer of dire warnings. Then, audaciously, Jackson has her return but now as comic relief.
What Jackson realises is what many of the best horror movie directors realise – you can’t just indefinitely wind up the tension. It gets too much and the reader/viewer can’t take it. Instead they ratchet up the tension slowly, sometimes releasing it back a bit with a humorous interlude or something mundane, before inexorably tightening the screws once more.
In the final quarter of Haunting Jackson introduces two new characters in the form of a self-professed medium and her doughty companion. They’re absolutely convinced they know what’s going on before investigating anything and manage both to miss the actually odd while constructing their own detailed theories from nothing but their own prejudices and assumptions. It’s a move that didn’t quite work for me – a bit too much humour too late in the book, but in some ways it does make the book all the more disturbing.
Hill House contains madness and tragedy: either lying intent but dormant within it waiting to be discovered by the unwary; or brought to it by people looking for a stage on which to act out their own dramas. The former possibility is horror in the traditional sense. The latter is actually the more horrifying. What walks in Hill House may just be us. Compared to that ghosts are positively comforting.