Haunted House!

haunting-of-hill-houseThis short haunted house tale is celebrated as a classic of the genre, a top-seller since its publication in 1959, although I don’t normally read haunted house stories so I can’t judge that.  Nevertheless, it accomplishes the goal of presenting a haunted house by ticking all the right boxes, and with the added virtue that the “ghosts” themselves never appear onstage. In keeping with modern realism, ambiguity is built into the narrative, so you’re never sure whether the characters are haunted by real, “out-there” ghosts of the dead, or by their own, in-the-head fears, anxieties, and neuroses.  They don’t know, and either do we, the readers. Either way, the fear is palpable to the characters.

A professor of parapsychology, or some such, finds two young female volunteers to accompany him for a week of observation and study at the remote country mansion. A young man, member of the family that owns the house, also joins them. It’s a large, old, wooden Victorian mansion with many rooms, hallways, and attics, in which several people have died, including a suicide by hanging and the death of a pair of twin girls, if I recall the setup. It hardly matters, except to note that the venue has all the credentials to qualify as a haunted house.

Jackson clearly had studied the history of the Gothic genre because she rings all the bells.  The genre developed in the 1700’s with novels like “Pamela, or, Virtue Rewarded. In a Series of Familiar Letters from a Beautiful Young Damsel, to her Parents,”  (How’s that for a title!), by Samuel Richardson, published in 1740 and a bestseller of its day. In The Haunting of Hill House, the professor repeatedly is found reading a copy of Pamela, and although he doesn’t say anything about it, and the story in Hill House has little to do with that of Pamela, the reference is clearly a wink from Jackson to the reader.

Likewise, Hill House has many of the standard Gothic elements found in The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, published in 1764, a romance set in an old castle. These elements include long, dark, hallways, dimly lit rooms without windows, doors and windows locked, or unlocked, open or closed, subterranean vaults and passageways, and so on.  Jackson has successfully combined these early classic Gothic elements with the psychological elements of later horror stories such as those by Bram Stoker, Mary Shelly, and Edgar Allen Poe.

Gothic fiction nearly always contains antiquated spaces, such as ruins, graveyards or haunted mansions; spaces inhabited by ghosts, specters, or monsters (mental or supernatural); buried secrets from the past, characters torn between old belief systems, usually religious, and skeptical newer ideologies, usually science; all with a generous dose of immediate and symbolic terror or horror.

In Haunting of Hill House, Eleanor, the main character, is pathologically neurotic, wracked with guilt over her mother’s death, has a complete lack of self-confidence, difficulty connecting with other people and extremely high gullibility. Contrast her with Professor Montague, man of science, and skeptic looking to document the occurrence of hauntings. He turns out to be a pretty bad scientist, but his wife, who appears late in the game, tries to back him up. That’s the main contrast: curious skepticism versus terrified vulnerability. And in keeping with modernism, the ghosts seem to be in the subconscious rather than in “the other world.”

The foursome hangs out in the old mansion for a week and various “manifestations” do occur – door slamming, wall banging, moaning and laughter in the halls, supernaturally cold spots, and so on.  Or wait, maybe those were only imagined.  One or two characters will be scared to within an inch of their lives but the other characters report they didn’t see or hear anything. So was it real or not?  That is the ambiguity we are left with. It’s an update on the traditional ghost story. These ghosts are like childhood monsters under the bed.

Though the story is well-constructed, I was at no time horrified, not even a little spooked. I found the goings-on ludicrous and found myself annoyed that the characters acted so stupidly even with a card-carrying scientist in their midst. The characters and the events of the story were not realistic enough to be believable, nor well-drawn enough to be symbolic, nor even silly enough to be funny. The whole thing just struck me as ridiculous. But again, I’m not a fan of the genre, which apparently appeals to a different reader than me.

Jackson’s writing had its moments of brilliance, especially in some pithy passages of narrative description, but overall, I was frustrated by her dependence on narrative exposition rather than dramatization. I think that’s why the book is so short. The author just declares things, like “the house was scary.”  As a reader, I’m thinking, “Well, maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. What do you mean by scary? Show me!”

Jackson shows us some doors that won’t stay closed, but how scary is that? I have one of those in my house. She relies instead on authorial authoritativeness, just declaring scariness, rather than using dramatic demonstration to invoke the necessary fearful emotions, beliefs and anxieties in the reader. The authoritative narrator is an old technique, used in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it doesn’t cut it in 20th century fiction, in my opinion. She probably used that mode of narration to be consistent with the classics.

This would be a good novel in a course on “The Gothic Novel,” but aside from its theme and genre, I wouldn’t recommend it as a “good read,” except maybe to children and young readers who are yet unstable in their beliefs about what is real and what isn’t. For most modern grown-ups, I can’t imagine that it would be scary, although I confess, I do have friends who have had nightmares after reading it. That is inexplicable to me.

Jackson, Shirley (1959). The Haunting of Hill House. New York: Penguin. (182 pp).


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