“I think we are only afraid of ourselves,” the doctor said slowly.
“No,” Luke said. “Of seeing ourselves clearly and without disguise.”
You may have seen Shirley Jackson’s name bouncing around the web-literati lately, she’s having a bit of a resurgence due to a new biography by Ruth Franklin published in October. It’s one I welcome.
The Haunting of Hill House is the second novel of Jackson’s I’ve read, after the deliciously wicked We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and I recently devoured Penguin’s collection of short stories: The Lottery and Other Stories.
Onto The Haunting of Hill House then and my spoiler-y, queer reading/review.
The set up is one familiar to readers of the gothic, or even to the most lackadaisical horror film-goer. A haunted house, a portentous housekeeper, a remote location (shunned by the local village of course) and a gathering of strangers: Dr Montague, a rational man of science but a believer nonetheless; Luke Sanderson, the owner of the house and a total liar and a cad; Theodora (just Theodora), the ‘sensitive’ with possible psychic abilities and an attention problem; and our protagonist the unsure, uncertain, much maligned Eleanor Vance.
Much like We Have Always Lived in the Castle Jackson offers up another complex set of characters, each an outsider in their own way and Eleanor an outsider even in this set of oddballs. It’s something she constantly worries about and dwells on: has she said too much, has she said the wrong thing? Perhaps this resonated too deeply with me, but I understand her completely when on waking Eleanor asks herself: “What did I do; did I make a fool of myself? Were they laughing at me?” Eleanor is deeply concerned with what others think of her, whether she is in the group or out and this tension, between herself and the others, sets up the cause of her psychological break and leads to the climax of the novel.
Jackson is quite clear that the ghostly hauntings of the house are in essence harmless: it is the doctor himself who warns that the real danger is only themselves and that they must resist the dark pull of the house on their psyches. The doctor too presents the backstory, a few tragic deaths, a sisterly quarrel, a hanging: all window dressing and red herrings. The horror is not to be found in so pedestrian a story (even the doctor doubts its authenticity) – no the true horror is to be found within the minds of our poor protagonists and their shifting relationships towards each other. It is a question of not if, but when one of them will snap. And all signs quickly point to Eleanor: Eleanor who is singled out by the house, Eleanor who has lived sheltered from the outside world looking after her sickly mother, Eleanor who we are introduced to as someone who loves no-one and is loved by no-one:
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.
I can think of no better character introduction (save perhaps for one of Austen’s cutting asides) – it tells us everything we need to know about Eleanor and this facet of her personality. This lack of loving relationships, is I think, the driving force behind her psychological breakdown. Jackson is a master at inner psychology, of presenting us with characters who do not say what they mean, who can think wicked thoughts while they smile and joke. Jackson teaches us to never underestimate another’s person ability to misdirect and deceive. No-one is ever quite as they seem (Merricat being a prime example in We Have Always Lived in the Castle).
All this leads me nicely along to Theodora and her shameless flirtation with Eleanor. The subtext to me was pretty clear: Theodora is a queer woman (I even made a list of hints as I was reading). Early on she teases Eleanor, “Luke has fallen in love with you, and I am jealous” and, when asked by Eleanor, says that she is not married, but lives with a ‘friend’ who is carefully never gendered by Jackson. Theodora pursues Eleanor in the first third of the novel, gently flirting with her through casual touches and looks. Eleanor of course, unused to love and attention, quickly develops an attachment with a clinging intensity that Theodora then rebuffs (*sigh*) Quite a lot to cope with when there are also things going bump in the night and messages scrawled in blood appearing on the walls.
It is Luke’s comment (quoted at the beginning) on fear being about the stripping away of the self that is I think key to understanding the novel. Is Eleanor afraid of the love she feels for Theodora? An internalised homophobia? Or is she afraid that now she’s free from her mother she doesn’t know who she is anymore? That she has no where to belong? After Luke’s comment regarding disguises, Theodora adds her opinion of the true cause of fear: “Of knowing what we really want” and presses her hand to Eleanor’s cheek (who flinches away having just entertain thoughts of killing Theodora). Next Eleanor speaks and in one of her longest passages of speech describes her sense of self as something in danger of splintering:
“Look. There is only one of me, and it’s all I’ve got. I hate seeing myself dissolve and slip and separate so that I’m living in one half, my mind, and I see the other half of me helpless and frantic, and driven and I can’t stop it, but I know I’m not really going to be hurt and yet time is so long and even a second goes on and on and I could stand any of it if I could only surrender-"
She speaks of surrendering to fear, but this could easily be another surrender, that to love. And just when Eleanor is at the cusp of acknowledging it during a walk in the woods, (which turns into a particularly creepy scene of a family picnic gone rotten) Theodora is already pulling away. Jackson asks us to question the capacity we have for cruelty: is Theodora a tease, an attention seeker? Is Eleanor hopelessly naive? Or selfish? Guilt, fear, love, desire: all play out between Eleanor and Theodora, twisting themselves into knots as the come together and pull away. Theodora understands Eleanor, often responding to her thoughts before Eleanor has voiced them, they even start to merge into one another, sharing clothes and ghostly experiences alike. The sense of growing attachment is muddied by Eleanor’s resentment and repulsion of Theodora and its makes for a heady mix of emotion. Theodora’s motives and true feelings remain more of a mystery to the reader. But either way their (ok, my) ship refuses to sail.
Eleanor then with no place to put her love, no way to express it, turns it loose onto Hill House itself, melding into the very fabric of the house and surrounding hills: she imagines at one point that she can hear everything going on, even feel the others moving across the floorboards and through the (spookily always closing) doors. Eleanor who has never known a home has found one in this haunted place. She is never in any real danger (even at the top of the tower she knows she was not going to jump). It’s not until she forced by the others to leave, afraid of the house’s grip on her, that Eleanor is put in harm’s way. Eleanor’s refrain throughout the novel: “journeys ends in lovers meeting” is of course significant – the first person Eleanor meets (after creepy Mr Dudley) is Theodora. Is this the lover? Or is it the house? Regardless Eleanor’s journey certainly comes to a crashing and devastating end.
There’s so much more I could mention, like how given the quantity of brandy and cocktails our four protagonists are constantly slinging back it’s no wonder they all begin to see things. I’m sure they spend three-quarters of the novel completely sloshed (it’s one way to cope I suppose). Or how playful and teasing they are with one another (something I feel is missing from modern horror) – how they laugh at their own silliness and fear. It made their reactions that much more realistic and believable and answered that age old question of why don’t they just leave? And of course you need the light to contrast the dark, without the laughter you cannot feel the fear. And boy did I feel the fear. I’ve not even touched on the creeping sense of dread, the waiting for something ghostly to happen, the banging doors and childish laughter, the ghostly hand and apparitions. Or what about Mrs Dudley and her wonderful repetitive catchphrases, breakfast at nine, I clear at ten. Or Dr Montague’s wife, fabulously brazen and a bit batty. Or the strange architecture of the house, or the winding introduction of Eleanor driving through the countryside. Or, or, or…
One day perhaps I’ll plot the course of Eleanor and Theodora’s doomed relationship and map out the strange maze-like rooms of House Hill. One day when I’m safely tucked up in bed with all the doors propped open and all the lights turned on I might go back to that place:
Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within.