Monday, February 10, 2014

O Mistress mine, where are you roaming? The Haunting of Hill House

O Mistress mine, where are you roaming? O stay and hear! your true-love’s coming That can sing both high and low; Trip no further, pretty sweeting, Journeys end in lovers’ meeting— Every wise man’s son doth know. - See more at:

 O Mistress mine, where are you roaming? 
O stay and hear! your true-love’s coming 
That can sing both high and low; 
Trip no further, pretty sweeting, 
Journeys end in lovers’ meeting— 
Every wise man’s son doth know
O Mistress mine, where are you roaming? O stay and hear! your true-love’s coming - See more at:
O Mistress mine, where are you roaming? O stay and hear! your true-love’s coming That can sing both high and low; Trip no further, pretty sweeting, Journeys end in lovers’ meeting— Every wise man’s son doth know. - See more at:
O Mistress mine, where are you roaming? O stay and hear! your true-love’s coming That can sing both high and low; Trip no further, pretty sweeting, Journeys end in lovers’ meeting— Every wise man’s son doth know. - See more at:

The Haunting of Hill House might be the only horror novel ever written that maintains the subtle cadence of a Shakespearean sonnet* for 182 pages. There is a lyrical push and pull quality to the prose that lulls you in like a wave, quietly rocking you almost gently to sleep and then eventually pulling you under. Half the time I was reading this book, I felt as though I were dreaming, as sentences like this washed over me:

Eleanor and Theodora reflected for a minute that it was imprudent for them to walk far from Hill House after dark. Each was so bent upon her own despair that escape into darkness was vital, and, containing themselves in that tight, vulnerable, impossible cloak which is fury, they stamped along together, each achingly aware of the other, each determined to be the last to speak. 

At times, the interiority of it all becomes a bit too much to bear. There are moments when Eleanor's mousy insanity gets a bit tiresome. When I first read the book, in high school, I thought Theodora very cruel toward Eleanor, but this time around I understood her impulse to want to slap some confidence into Nell every so often. All that emotional fragility is so exhausting. (Perhaps the ultimate horror here isn't the super scary dream house -- maybe it's that the paranoid feeling you have that no one likes you and you're an irredeemably irritating person might be because... no one likes you and you're an irredeemably irritating person. At first Eleanor can play the game, she can socialize and banter with the rest of them, but then her essential separateness, her essential insanity, breaks to the surface and everyone realizes she's a complete bummer and they really just want her to go home. Think on that next time you're mingling at a cocktail party.)

Obviously, Hill House utilizes incredibly psychological horror, and every once in a while you wish Jackson would use her astonishing abilities to make something happen. There's so much sitting around drinking brandy. But it's all about relationships, isn't it? On my first reading of the book, it was the relationship between Eleanor and Theodora that stuck with me. The subtle and terrifying entanglements of the female dynamic certainly resonated with me in high school, where every day brought fresh complexities and betrayals. Naturally, I understood Eleanor's compulsive attraction to the house; it is the one rule of Hill House that everyone understands when almost nothing else about the house is comprehensible or in any way assured. The original Times review even suggests the possibility that Eleanor is not at the house at all: "A disquieting doubt is sown in the reader's mind. Is Eleanor at Hill House or not? If there, how is she there?" All of which is to say, there is a lot of dancing around the interpersonal dynamics of the house, much interior monologuing inside Eleanor's fragile, tortured mind, and plenty of ambiguous exploration of the house and grounds, but mostly there is a lot of waiting around. (Also: Theo is a lesbian, right? Another thing I missed on the first reading. If not, why the genderless live-in "friend"? Discuss.)

In a sense, Hill House is the complete antithesis of Rosemary's Baby, which I read last week, where action takes precedence over language. In Hill House the writing is almost the only thing that matters, because very little happens. To be clear, the waiting around is exquisitely wrought, but it is just a hair short sometimes of being too subtle, too restrained. Luckily, this is Shirley fucking Jackson we're dealing with here, so she pulls it off. Yet oddly I feel Hill House is a lesser book than Jackson's other classic, We Have Always Lived In The Castle, which managed somehow to do more, to deliver more intensity.

Still. Those moments where Jackson does indulge us in a little ghostly action are absolutely masterful. As a writer, the reason I re-read this book was to try to unlock the secret to writing a masterful horror novel (easy, right?). And I realized the answer isn't in parsing the structure of the book -- it's about reading every single word. It reminds me of an old joke I heard once about how to write a winning screenplay: it should be 90 to 110 pages, have three holes punched in the side, secured with two brads, and also it should be written really, really, really well. So, for those also hoping to learn how to do it, here's how:

Sitting up in the two beds beside each other, Eleanor and Theodora reached out between and held hands tight; the room was brutally cold and thickly dark. From the room next door... came the steady low sound of a voice babbling, too low for words to be understood, too steady for disbelief. Then, without warning, there was a little laugh, the small, gurgling laugh that broke through the babbling, and rose as it laughed, on up and up the scale, and then broke off suddenly in a little painful gasp and the voice went on.

Jackson goes on to describe the sobbing, babbling, laughing voice, which tortures Eleanor until she screams, "STOP IT!" and then --

The lights were on the way they had left them and Theodora was sitting up in bed, startled and disheveled.
"What?" Theodora was saying. "What, Nell? What?"
"God God," Eleanor said, flinging herself out of bed and across the room to stand shuddering in a corner. "God God -- whose hand was I holding?"

So yeah, that's how you make a reader feel terrified and insane. Like I said, easy.

Perhaps significantly, when it comes to the moments of ghostly action, Jackson seems to take her cues from the incidents at Borley Rectory -- most obviously the writing on the walls -- which were later discredited. I wonder if they were still widely believed true in 1959 when Jackson wrote Hill House; if not, that's just one more layer of subtle trickery.

One final note: on this reading, I also found myself unexpectedly amused by the blast of air that was Mrs. Montague, a paranormal blowhard who rushes into the house with all the grace of a tornado (and ends up befriending the dour and impossible Mrs. Dudley!). I loved the shift in tone and perspective she brought with her, setting everything as askew as Hill House itself, which, by the way, we are told is all askew and yet upright and solid at varying points in the book. (Nothing is what it seems!) Jackson has enough humor and self awareness to allow moments like Mrs. Montague's into her narrative.

Only Shirley Jackson could take an old dark house tale and do this with it. Even if the book, like Eleanor, does have its (very) occasional wearying moments, ultimately there are moments of absolute horror, which Jackson sprinkles throughout the book in vast enough quantities to keep us from sensing that there is no action at all. The doctor, after one of the first real incidents at the house, notes, "When Luke and I are called outside, and you two are kept imprisoned inside, doesn't it begin to seem" -- and his voice was very quiet -- "doesn't it begin to seem that the intention is, somehow, to separate us?" For this, and for bestowing on the world the vague and shadowy character of Eleanor Vance, Jackson will forever be the master. No reader, once having read her, will ever forget Eleanor.

Eleanor who roams forever, mistress of Hill House, her only beloved.

*Are these lines actually a sonnet? I'm not sure.

Friday, February 07, 2014

A Bunch of Not-Very-Bright Bitches: Rosemary's Baby, Structure and Criticism

"One of the half-dozen most influential horror novels of all time."

Today: part two in our look back at classic horror novels! 

When it comes to Rosemary's Baby, the movie gets a lot more attention than the book. The film is widely considered a classic, while the book is thought a flimsy bit of long forgotten pulp trash, whose own author almost disavowed it, even going so far as to blame it for the dumbening of America. But if you take the time to go back and revisit it, not only is it a snappy little read with a wry, mordant, ironic sense of humor, it's also a minimalist marvel of structure, characterization, and efficiency, expertly executed by a playwright and craftsman.

Like most people trained to write for stage or screen, Ira Levin was more about structure than style. This is something certain literary types will made snide comments about, or (worse) praise faintly. But Otto Penzler gets it. In his introduction to the novel's 2010 edition, the mystery master perfectly sums it up: Levin's sentences are "models of precision, making up what they lacked in velvety, mandarin, overripe prose with clarity and forward movement, with never a wasted word."

I recently sat down and did a structural analysis of novel and if you'd like to know how Levin pulls it off, here it is. For those who are not horror or suspense writers, feel free to skip the next section.

A Structural Analysis 

Let's start with characterization. In chapter one, we already learn that Guy is a good liar, and that Rosemary is sweet, and a people-pleaser. We learn this in the brief interaction between Guy, Rosemary, and a couple of real estate agents. In addition to characterization, a lot of really important exposition is delivered through dialogue, which might seem easy and obvious but then Levin gets ingenious with it, actually delivering expository information through half-heard bits of conversation floating through Rosemary's dreams. The walls in her apartment are thin, you see, and she can hear the Castavets plotting right through them... but of course she doesn't yet make the connection.

With Levin, everything -- especially set ups and characterization -- comes down to individual, granular moments. Let's take the famous sandwich scene in chapter five. Husband of the year candidate Guy takes a sandwich and beer supplied by Rosemary without even saying thank you. Levin uses this scene to advance the action (Rosemary says they have been invited to dinner at the Castavets), to establish character (Guy = thankless dickwad) and set up Guy's frustration with his career, which makes what happens next plausible and believable. (Side note: this is why I have such issues with the excessive word-count phenomenon I see going on in so many contemporary novels. You don't need a hundred pages to show us that Guy is a dickwad. You just need one sandwich.)

The fantastic part about the plotting in Rosemary's Baby is that everything evolves through action. You can practically feel the story beats lining themselves up in a row, but they're never obvious. In one scene, Guy is pondering the Castavets' scheme. How do we know this? He's up late at night, smoking a cigarette. That's it. That's all it takes. At the time, on the first read, you might not even notice it. But later, when the story starts paying off, you realize what a subtle set up it was.

Later, Guy gets real close to blowing the whole act when he lashes out at Rosemary after the party scene, after she got some very sane advice from her girlfriends, calling them a “bunch of not-very-bright bitches who should mind their own god-damned business,” and dismissing Dr. Hill as a Charley Nobody.

Rosemary objects: 

“I’m just going to let Dr. Hill examine me and give me his opinion.”
“I won’t let you,” Guy said. “It’s -- it’s not fair to Sapirstein.”
“Not fair to -- What are you talking about? What about what’s fair to me?”

So Levin steps back and has Rosemary’s pain suddenly, inexplicably disappear. It’s not time for that crisis yet, not if we want to keep stringing this girl along, anyway. No, Rosemary won’t show another flash of anger and insight until after Hutch’s death, when she reads the book All of them Witches. Of course, at that point we realize C.C. Hill isn’t quite the dreamboy of the western world after all, when he sells her straight down the river. 

Speaking of Hutch, here’s another great example of how Levin strings us along with little breadcrumbs throughout the book. A chance conversation with Hutch’s daughter at the hospital informs Rosemary that she (Rosemary) is seeing Dr. Sapirstein about twice as often as an ordinary woman. It will also be a chance moment at the Doctor’s office that will tip her off to his frequent and smelly use of the tannis root. Levin does rely a little bit on coincidence -- for example, having Rosemary run into Guy’s vocal coach and discovering about the Fantasticks tickets -- but only these three times by my count, which isn’t outside the realm of probability.

Finally, Levin is great at lulls. Almost all of chapter six in part two is just Rosemary being happy, and even after Hutch dies and she finds out about the witches, there is a lull where things seem smoothed away. Even after the iconic hot-phone-booth suspense scene, Rosemary has a chance to lie down in a cool room… until they take her away.

So basically, Levin does everything you’ve ever been told to do while writing suspense: he "shows us the gun," he lets us stay one step ahead of the main character (but not two), and he litters the trail to the climax with lots of little bread crumbs. Yet, incredibly, the book doesn’t feel overly plotted. One thing Rosemary’s Baby has in common with the Exorcist is the simplicity of its concept. I also notice that Levin uses -- probably unknowingly -- many of the principles M.R. James suggests for writing good horror. He keeps the setting modern, and banal (for realism), proceeds slowly, keeps his evil pure evil, and when he’s ready to (usually between chapters 7 and 10), delivers an eminently “Jamesian wallop.” Levin observed that “the most suspenseful part of a horror story is before, not after, the horror appears,” which also explains why act three is less than a quarter of the length of acts one and two. No need to linger once the act is done.

Incidentally, pregnancy itself is also a simple concept -- from month one to month nine, a small human being develops. It’s how that tiny person develops that’s really amazing. Levin said, “I was struck one day by the thought (while not listening to a lecture) that a fetus could be an effective horror if the reader knew it was growing into something malignly different from the baby expected. Nine whole months of anticipation, with the horror inside the heroine!”

It’s simplicity itself. I wish more horror writers, readers, and critics would learn to appreciate this concept. Elaborate plot twists are not always necessary. If there’s one criticism that almost always strikes me as meaningless, it’s “I saw that coming.”


Interestingly enough, almost none of the criticism of Rosemary’s Baby deals with the fact that nothing in it is really unexpected, except, strangely, Renata Adler’s (!) original review of the film in the New York Times: "The movie—although it is pleasant—doesn't quite work on any of its dark or powerful terms. I think this is because it is almost too extremely plausible. One gets very annoyed that they don't catch on sooner. One's friends would have understood the situation at once."

I really wish the producers had gone with this for a movie poster pull-quote: “Rosemary’s Baby is …. pleasant.” - Renata Adler.

But I promised to talk about the book, not the movie, so let’s see what the paper of record had to say about the novel, shall we? In Thomas J. Fleming’s original 1967 review, he catches on immediately to how great the story concept is:

"Ira Levin has 'urbanized' the ghost story. Instead of a creepy mansion on a windy hill, he has given us a haunted apartment house on upper Seventh Avenue. Into this highceilinged warren (with its vaguely sinister gargoyle facade) move Rosemary and her actor-husband, Guy."

And he loves at least the first two thirds of the book: "Mr. Levin’s suspense is beautifully intertwined with everyday incidents; the delicate line between belief and disbelief is faultlessly drawn."

But he hates the ending -- though not because he saw it coming. He seems to hate the ending because he saw it:

"Up until this point, we are with him entirely, admiring his skill and simultaneously searching out possible, probable, and improbable explanations of how he is going to extricate his heroine. Here, unfortunately, he pulls a switcheroo which sends up tumbling from sophistication to Dracula. Our thoroughly modern suspense story ends as just another Gothic tale.
Riding high on the jacket is a quote from Truman Capote comparing Rosemary’s Baby to The Turn of the Screw. Alas, this is precisely where it fails to measure up. James knew too much about the ambiguities of reality to make us decide whether his terror emanated from the supernatural or the torturous, unexplored depths of the human mind."

Fleming deplores the “literal resolution” of this story, demonstrating a failure to understand the pleasures of the horror genre -- but then, this is a guy who thinks a comparison to Dracula is a mild insult.

Personally, I think Rosemary’s Baby is a bit like Rosemary herself. People think she was stupid, but she wasn’t. She was a lot smarter, and a lot more self aware than people remember. She read the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for fun, and she was really good at Scrabble. Don’t underestimate little Rosemary Reilly from Omaha. She might just end up in charge of your whole god damned coven.