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.

1 comment:

Anne Roy said...

hullo ... I just found this blog ... Shirley Jackson is terrific ... they made a film of this book in 1963 called it The Haunting ... there are some snippets from it on youtube ...

It is the scariest film I have ever seen ... more than one person has told me that. Nothing happens but you are too afraid to leave your chair. I remember watching for ... oh, the 3rd time & being afraid to go to bed because I had to walk past two doorways before the bedroom ... do watch it.

Cdn Anne in England