10/21/10

THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE

There will never be another Shirley Jackson.  I was convinced of this as soon as I finished the first painstakingly crafted paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House.  Though the plot may arguably not be entirely original to the thoroughfare haunted house tale in her 1959 novel, Jackson's mix of language, imagery, and psychological tricks are really one of a kind in spite of how they too have been ripped off in years to follow.

Total Score = 24/30
W = 9
T = 8
F = 7    

I must admit that long before I read this book, I saw the film version in 1999 when I was a junior in high school.  The movie was pretty bad and even at that fragile age, I could recognize the shoddy acting and CGI overkill that would eventually bring Star Wars (TM) to crash and burn.  It's a surefire cash-in flick where Catherine Zeta-Jones' and Liam Neeson's overacting is worse than a middle school rendition of Xanadu and for some reason Owen Wilson is perilously cast as a 'serious actor'.  The movie kills the book, so my advice is of course to read the book first.  In the unfortunate event that you have already seen the movie, let its craptastical memory fade for a bit, and treat the book for what it is: an entirely different entity.

In the book, Dr. Montague, Jackson's take on a collegiate paranormal investigator prior to the world of EVP's electromagnetic energy readings and ghosts appearing in television static, rents the rumored haunted Hill House as part of his study in a pseudo-scientific attempt to prove the existence of life after death.  To assist him in his uncommon work, he hires two young women who both experienced unexplained phenomena in their lives.  

The first is Eleanor, an introverted childlike woman in her mid thirties who has horrible memories of youth and a lame existence with her selfish sister's family.  She is isolated and nervous, but revels in the chance that she is needed in this study, and quickly hijacks the family car to trek out into the presumed New England countryside for a summer in the warped house of Hugh Crain.  The second woman is Theodora, a vain shop owner and occasional documented telepath according to some possibly dubious accounts.  Theodora is somewhat cryptic about her sexuality, but it is clear that she desires to compete with Eleanor to be in the spotlight to the males of the group.  Descendant and future owner Luke, at the request of the family that owns the house, is sent along to make sure that nothing horrible is done during their rented stay.  Luke fluctuates between hitting on the girls and kissing up to Dr. Montague in attempts to hide his charlatan side.  The assistants' job (as well as Luke's) is mainly to "take notes" on what happens to them over the course of their stay, and to submit those notes to Montague, who will tie them together in definitive proof of the haunting afterlife.

The caretakers of the house are a creepy dour couple named "The Dudleys".  These townies refuse to stay anywhere near Hill House once darkness comes.  Mr. Dudley tries to steer Eleanor away from the front gates as soon as she arrives, and Mrs. Dudley gives Eleanor an ominous speech when she shows her to her room (one of the few crossovers between the film and the book), meant to scare the girl.  Mrs. D. is somewhat a part of the house, stuck in her ways and unable to abide any of the Dr. or his assistants' requests for anything beyond her rigid working schedule of cleaning and cooking at set times to make sure she is miles away from Hill House when the sun goes down.  Left alone in the house at night, the group quickly comes face to face with the phenomena of the house, winding the guests up, and winding Eleanor further into a spiral of doubt and hysteria.  

What I love about this book is not so much the haunting details that surround the house and it's off-kilter angles towers and cold spots, but the fascinating interplay between characters.  As Jackson's characters continue to mingle with each other, they change seamlessly into darker versions of their former selves.  Conversations between Eleanor (the primary focal point of the book) and her new acquaintances depreciate from flirty pleasantry to tenebrous ambiguity. Is she being taunted by the house?  Is she inventing imaginary slights?  Do her new co-workers actually care about her or are they making fun of her?  Is she meant to be in this house or is it all just a horrible joke on a girl who has lived a life of casualties at the hands of those she should have been able to trust?  Eleanor reverts to childish imagination, and the search for a mother's love as a way to deny these questions.   


In this sense, Jackson manages to make no character truly likable - an admirable trait in a writer attempting even a glimpse of the reality that human beings are creatures of mixed light and shadow.  When Mrs. Montague and her lackey (a boys' military school dean) enter the scene three quarters of the way through the book, the reader just savors the possibility of the house swallowing the abhorrent cow who refuses to call any of her husband's assistants by name and assumes Luke to be a graduated servant.  Her only redeeming quality is the oafish assumption that she can manage what her husband has not through moronic parlor tricks and seance-like planchette assessments of the house which make the reader more or less feel sorry for the poor woman.  At the same time, she manages to bring out the underside of her husband, who is ashamed of her and the dean's presence.  While Eleanor's imagination is certainly a sort of catalyst bringing out the house's venom, Mrs. Montague brings the house and the reader to the tipping point. 

As a main character, Eleanor is more or less lead into an ambush.  The beauty of her character is her secret dreams and the poetic stories she makes up for herself to get through her crude day-to-day life.  Through Eleanor, the reader encounters the gaping self-doubt as to whether or not the whole situation is real or created by her musings.  This is what makes the book a lovely cross between a horror story and a psychological thriller.  Though the group certainly does witness chilling events in the house, Eleanor is a kind of unwitting conjurer of the isolation and madness that ensues over the course of their short-lived stay.  Jackson lets Eleanor draw the requisite connection in the human psyche between the angry demon and the frightened child underneath.  So while the reader may not identify with her self-isolation and desire to mainly be alone in a fairytale cottage of her own design, you just can't help but feel for her in the icy moments when it seems her companions are cruelly baiting her like the loser at the  playground.  The dark question begged here is: can people ever really be trusted?


The book has its flaws too (hence 24/30).  I felt that it should have been much longer, that Jackson either ran out of steam for the backstory of Crain and the broken link of his tragic lonely family, or decided that it was better to cut her losses.  The book reads like a short story; the author is most famous for her commonly school-taught short story "The Lottery".  Perhaps she was most comfortable in this style, but I felt that this book would have bloomed so much further if she kept on diving into the house and the symbolism Crain endowed upon his progeny.  There are also points in the story where it seems that Jackson wants to break loose of the prim 50's language she's using to describe this scenario - you get whiffs of this in the dialog that the characters spit at each other and some of the images in their heads.  It's like she's caught between a Victorian ghost story and a 20th century realism piece, and sometimes that crevice is uncomfortable for the reader.  I found myself getting distracted by the language, wanting to shout: "Just say what you want to say already!"  


But the circular nature of the story, the occult undertones of the house designer (and Jackson's own real-life curiosity), and the repeating gestures and pieces of imagery and dialog make this tale more brilliant than its shortcomings.  As I read, I could not help myself from noticing how many other authors she must have inspired - to the point of literally ripping her off.  The first two that immediately jumped into my mind were Stephen King and Richard Matheson.  There were unmistakable elements of this novel in Carrie, Rose Red, and Hell House.  I guess one side of this can be seen as imitation as sincere flattery.  But of course the downside is that if you do read King and Matheson first, Jackson's work seems less original and you get less of a sense of how the book may have been received when it first hit the shelves.  


Then again, as I said from the start, the haunted house is one of the most unoriginal literary concepts of all time.  Almost everyone has a friend or acquaintance who has another friend or acquaintance who lived in a 'real life' haunted house.  It is hard to spin this genre into something wholly new and terrifying because we may feel we have heard it all.  There were definitely points in this book when I felt I was revisiting pieces of the ghost stories of Edith Wharton or even Henry James.  All writers or directors are influenced by others in some fashion, and Jackson is no exception in that respect either.  But this is something more than cheap thrills, or at least feels like it when you bite into it.  The bits of this book that stuck with me were when Jackson landed the state of mind of her characters (mainly Eleanor) and I had to ask the same questions she asked.  I had to remember similar moments in my life when I was unsure of my own company or how much I wanted to be able to trust people.  I had to wonder whether or not ghosts exist in reality or in our minds or both. 

12 comments:

  1. This book should be considered one of the major 20th century horror texts. It's probably because Jackson is a woman that she did not get as much of the credit she deserved next to the men who, as you say Betty, ripped her off - I totally agree. I wish I had read this in school instead of some of the garbage they force-fed me!

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  2. evilbearburning1/1/11, 3:58 PM

    I wasn't as impressed wtith the book. I didn't think the movie was that bad. This book is overrated, nothing happens in it.

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