The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson

  1. Toby Frost

    Toby Frost Well-Known Member

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    We need more ghost stories. They have a subtlety that gore cannot match. A good ghost story doesn't need to batter you over the head - it poisons you instead.

    After reading Stephen King’s excellent analysis of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House in Dance Macabre, I went out and bought the story itself. I must admit that, despite some good elements, I’m disappointed overall.

    The setup is simple and classic. A scholar of the supernatural calls together a party of experts to stay in a haunted house. Along with Dr Montague we have Luke, heir to the house, Theodora, a bohemian and probably bisexual artist, and Eleanor, the main protagonist, a rather sad woman who has spent most of her life caring for her invalid mother and has experienced very little freedom as a result. Both Eleanor and Theodora have psychic experiences in their pasts. A succession of bad things happen in the house, leading up to a startling conclusion.

    The understanding of the characters is very good, especially the two women. Eleanor is a fantasiast: at one point she tells a story she has previously overheard, making herself the lead character, and it is difficult to tell whether she believes it or not. As someone who half-lives in a fantasy world anyway, she is very susceptible to Hill House, and soon becomes the focus for psychic activity that may be in her head. The others are well-drawn, although the two men are something of a foil for the women, as Theodora seems to be tempted by both Eleanor and Luke.

    However, the dialogue was a real problem for me. I don’t know whether Jackson was aiming to portray sophisticated, artistic people, or whether she wanted to imply a very thin veneer of self-control in the ghost-hunters, but everyone talks in a flippant, facetious way that soon becomes pretty tiresome. It’s as though the ghost will turn out to be Noel Coward, the piano will tinkle on its own ivories and everything will be simply too marvellous, darling. This archness means that there’s very little threat to most of the dialogue. Two pages after a particularly nasty encounter Theodora remarks, “Hill House went dancing... taking us all on a mad midnight fling.” This, after the house has violently threatened and perhaps tried to kill the investigators, seems unrealistic. Most people, if they said anything coherent, would be asking for directions to the nearest mental hospital.

    Which brings me onto the strange pacing of the book. A good haunted-house story poses a mystery (usually “What’s going on and why?”) and, while the characters are trying to solve it, slowly breaks them down. This requires not just good characters, setting and so on, but a sense of pace and rising menace that Jackson really doesn’t provide. I felt very little mounting tension, partly because the characters seemed so unbothered by events, but also because Jackson adds new characters whose main effect is to diffuse the atmosphere. Mrs Dudley, the grim housekeeper, is effectively played for laughs, as is Mrs Montague, a ferocious lady who arrives in the final chapters and robs the book of much of its sense of isolation and mounting threat (a self-proclaimed mystic, she experiences very little of the phenomena that trouble the characters). I didn’t expect – or want – figures in sheets or piles of skulls, but I was disappointed that the tension didn’t rise in the way it does in, say, M.R. James’ work, or Lovecraft’s better short stories.

    That said, there are some very strong aspects to the book. Theodora’s sexuality seems fairly-presented for the time (1959): she is a predator (albeit probably unknowingly), and a rather flighty one, but she isn’t a monster, just a rather vain sophisticate. It’s not so much her interest in Eleanor that unsettles as the question of how it will make Eleanor respond. Eleanor’s character, her fantasising and strange affinity for the house, are really unnerving. When Eleanor goes off on a daydream, there is a sense of being trapped in the mind of someone well-meaning but dangerously, frighteningly weak. The final few chapters are very good indeed, leading up to a genuinely disturbing conclusion.

    I’m afraid that I can’t say this is the definitive ghost story that King’s analysis implies. King is right to think that The Haunting of Hill House is a great mixture of character study and ghost story, but the elements I have listed above really spoiled the novel for me. I appreciate the skill that went into this book, but the affected dialogue was a chore and the unwillingness to raise the tension made it a sinister, but rather unthreatening, read. The main source of creepiness for me was the experience of being trapped in Eleanor’s head: I would have felt much the same unease whether or not she was in a haunted house.

    6.5/10.
     
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  2. The Judge

    The Judge Truth. Order. Moderation. Staff Member

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    Hmmm. Extraordinary how potent cheap music can be -- but not cheap writing, evidently. By the sounds of it, all that was missing was Madame Arcati.

    Thanks for the review, Toby, very interesting and informative. I shan't be rushing out to buy the book, though.
     
  3. Toby Frost

    Toby Frost Well-Known Member

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    Well, it wasn't tacky in the sense of providing cheap thrills. In a way I'd rather the thrills had been cheaper. It feels a bit too sophisticated for its own good - post-modern, almost. There's a bit where the doctor discusses other haunted houses, which, although he probably would do it in practice, feels a bit like characters in a zombie film discussing what they've learned from watching zombie films.

    As a character study it's pretty good, but I couldn't help wonder if Jackson was unwilling to wade in and really let rip with the suspense. I got a feeling of pulling back from the real haunting. As I say, I didn't want a CGI extravaganza, but I did want the kind of full-on tension you would get from, say "The Whisperer in Darkness" or "Oh Whistle and I'll Come To You", both of which are older stories.

    Perhaps I should re-read it in a year or two, and see how I feel then.
     
  4. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    It has been some years since I last read Ms. Jackson's novel but, though I can see where you are coming from, I can't agree with your assessment entirely. I would argue that this remains one of the great haunted house tales -- quite possibly the greatest at novel length. It is a more subtle tale than most, and that sometimes causes problems of its own (yes, I would say it is considerably more subtle than either of the tales you mention, for instance).

    As for the dialogue... there are pros and cons on that aspect. I think you are right that, at least to some degree, that dialogue was a sign of the times the book was written in, when such "smart" dialogue was very much in. But I would also say that, with these characters, it acts as a defense mechanism to shield them from what they fear about the house... but one which, ultimately, doesn't work (especially for Eleanor). Like L. P. Hartley's often facetious-sounding dialogue, careful attention to it does indeed increase the air of mounting tension and menace, but it keeps the reader off-balance about just what that menace consists of... and it certainly isn't likely to be what he or she expects. Too, it is meant to point up their hollowness against the reality of the house, which is anything but so sophisticated. It is, in a very real sense, very primal in its forces... but cunning. The house itself -- like Poe's House of Usher, Hawthorne's Seven Gables, or Lovecraft's Shunned House -- is very much alive. And, as Ms. Jackson notes in her opening paragraph, not sane:

    I would strongly recommend this one, myself, as well as several of her shorter tales, and that wonderfully eerie, off-beat, and rather disturbing piece We Have Always Lived in the Castle....
     
  5. Toby Frost

    Toby Frost Well-Known Member

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    I agree that this is a subtle book, but I don't think that subtlety strengthens it (unless I've missed something, which with subtle books is generally quite likely). The subtlety of James or Arthur Machen, which to an extent was forced upon them by the morality of the time, strengthens their stories. When we hear of "unspeakable deeds" now, we are still impressed, even if the authors meant something wholly different to what we now envisage. Jackson's subtlety made me feel that she just left something out - in fact, the comedy relief and its timing made me wonder if she felt the need, consciously or not, to diffuse the tension instead of ramping it up.

    The dialogue just doesn't work for me. If it was a defence mechanism, which I think is often right, I didn't get enough sense of it being such. It was hard not to imagine the characters, after some hideous, mind-warping experience, lounging round the fireplace and quipping about how ghastly the decor was. There comes a point early on when the characters must admit that they are either being duped or that the supernatural is real: this didn't seem to have much effect on them. This just doesn't feel realistic to me.

    But I don't think this book was bad, as such: instead, elements of it were enough to spoil the book as a whole. Eleanor is a great character, pitiful and scary, and her daydreams become the most frightening thing in the book because of what might be lurking behind them. Some of the other moments are great: Luke's mother speech is highly unsettling, as (in a strange, uncomfortable way) is the nail-painting scene. But where the book required more conventional haunted-house scares it didn't work for me. For instance, I really couldn't tell why Eleanor couldn't have been holding Theo's hand during the night. There wasn't a sense of their positions in the room or a reason why it shouldn't have been Theo all along, so the climax of that scene fell flat to me.

    I wouldn't tell people not to read this book: however I would strongly suggest that it works much better as a character study (and a sinister one too) than a ghost story. As I say, perhaps in a couple of years I'll give it another go.
     
  6. Fried Egg

    Fried Egg Well-Known Member

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    I've just finished reading and I thought it was excellent. Here is my review:
    As far as the dialogue was concerned, it wasn't a problem for me. I saw it pretty much the same way JD did; it was a defence mechanism, their way of coping with their fear and trying to re-establish a sense of normality after an unsettling experience.

    I loved the ending, particularly the question the very last line:
    "Whatever walked there, walked alone." Was Eleanor's death in vain or is it she that walks alone?
     
  7. Jo Zebedee

    Jo Zebedee writes books about people.

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    I read this years ago, after reading Salem's Lot; King uses Hill house as his inspiration for the Marsden house and remembered being disappointed at the time, mainly because King gave it such a great endorsement.

    yet, it has never left me over the years, it pops into my mind at odd moments, so there was definitely a resonance with me, an eerieness that maybe in its simplicity is not as polished as many books we read.

    Anyway, i never see a spooky old house without the last lines coming into my mind, so if nothing else I think I can endorse the atmosphere she created and the resonating final image.
     
  8. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    It has been a few years since I last reread Salem's Lot, but I don't recall this being the case. I do, however, remember him relying heavily on the references to Hill House in The Shining, as the Overlook was, in many ways, a similar sort of locus of such forces.
     
  9. Jo Zebedee

    Jo Zebedee writes books about people.

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    I'm not sure about the overlook but I can see the link. I did just recheck salem's lot in cast I was doting and at the start of part one: the marsden house he quotes hill house including the "whatever walked there line" so I took it as its inspiration.
     
  10. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    Then my memory played me false on that one. Yup... entering my declining years....:eek::rolleyes:
     
  11. Toby Frost

    Toby Frost Well-Known Member

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    I re-read this book to see if I’d just got it wrong. However, I would stick with my earlier verdict. As a portrait of a disturbed woman slowly and willingly losing the plot, it is very good – better than I first thought. However, as a ghost story, I don’t think it’s as good as Stephen King claims. It doesn’t put its scares together as well as other ghost stories, and the inclusion of comedy interludes diffuses the tension too much. The dialogue didn’t irritate me quite as much as before, but I still think that less quipping would have ramped up the tension considerably. I can’t say this is a bad book – where it succeeds, it succeeds very well – but while it’s probably a good novel, I don’t think it’s a great ghost story.

    That said, I am in definitely in a minority here.
     
  12. Vladd67

    Vladd67 Stake Holder

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  13. BAYLOR

    BAYLOR There Are Always new Things to Learn.

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    Read the book and cannot understand why this one is rated as high as it is . I found it very un-suspensceful and tedious.
     
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  14. Randy M.

    Randy M. Well-Known Member

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    Generally, I agree with you about the effect of a good ghost story. The disquiet such stories cause can be extremely effective and can have an effect on the reader that lasts a lifetime. I know, because that's the effect The Haunting of Hill House has had on me.

    From there, we disagree somewhat.

    1) Jackson, like Henry James in The Turn of the Screw, never quite commits to her story being a ghost story. The question of whether there is a ghost or whether all that happens is a product of Eleanor is never resolved and, for me as a reader, that is part of what produces suspense in coordination with the plot: Just how much of what happens stems from Hell House?

    2) The dialog mostly works for me given the time and place and kind of people Jackson is portraying, though your Noel Coward crack is funny and not off mark. What it reminds me of is the kind of movie banter that was popular from the 1930s and 1940s and which lingered for a decade or two after in some movies -- see most any movie with George Sanders, and even read some Fritz Leiber for something similar. Extollager made a good point about The New Yorker which I think had a style, though really it also created a home for writers as diverse as Jackson, John O'Hara, James Thurber, S. J. Perelman and E. B. White. And, frankly, I think today you could find parallel speech patterns from those who watch a good deal of TV -- see also, Joss Whedonites.

    3) But my main bone of contention is this:
    First, note that while Mrs. Montague acts as comic relief when she first appears, as I recall she is also the first to confrontthe immediate danger and demand action on it. The others are too self-absorbed and may be daunted by what they've seen at Hill House; afraid to act since it might hurt Eleanor and maybe afraid such action would admit there is danger and that they have some culpability toward the state Eleanor has fallen into. Mrs. Montague's seemingly silly spiritualism is underpinned by a grounded good sense, eve as it propels the novel toward its conclusion.

    Second, there is a mystery about the place as to whether it's haunted or not, but the pacing of the book revolves around Eleanor's search for connection. From the point when she arrives at Hill House you can almost see the novel as four separate movements, each movement toward one of the other characters, the last of the four characters being Hill House, looking for someone to anchor her now that her mother is dead and she has declared independence from her sister. Eleanor desperately wants love and support and has found perhaps the worst lot of people with whom to attempt such connection, each of them fatally flawed in some way inimical to Eleanor: Dr. Montague wavers between father-figure and love interest and while he's vaguely sympathetic, he's also abstracted and distant, an academic filled with theory but maybe not as strong with the pragmatic; and Luke is the definition of shallow and irresponsible, there because some representative of the family has to be and not interested in real connection with anyone. Theodora is somewhat more complicated. Initially attracted or at least flirty, she also instinctively recognizes Eleanor's desperation and neediness, and can only supply so much of what Eleanor needs; I think it's implied that self-preservation forces her to distance herself from Eleanor even as it wounds her to do so. By the end, only Hill House is left to turn to.


    All of this is just to say, that some of what you see as drawbacks, I've viewed as strengths over the five or six times I've read the novel. I concede, though, that first reading it when I was in my late teens or early twenties, and being immediately under its spell from the first paragraph may account for my inability to recognize what others see as flaws.

    Randy M.
     
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  15. Theophania Elliott

    Theophania Elliott Well-Known Member

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    I read this a couple of weeks ago - it's the first book in a while I've added to my 'favourites' shelf.

    I think it's interesting how everyone seems to get something different out of it. For me, it was a study in social dynamics: poor, emotionally stunted Eleanor is allowed to be herself for the first time in her life, and is just discovering who that is. At first, she's drawn to Theodora, who is nice to her - but then Theodora turns spiteful when she (Theodora) realises that Eleanor isn't going to play the plain spinster foil to pretty, vivacious Theodora. Eleanor isn't socially aware enough to realise that Theodora must be the centre of attention at all times, and Theodora isn't interested in any relationship where that isn't the case.

    Then you gradually see the quartet splitting into a trio and a singleton, as the other three gradually isolate Eleanor, belittling and excluding her. Even when it's obvious that the house is more interested in Eleanor than any of the rest of them, they can't bring themselves to admit that the manifestations might be real - because it's Eleanor they're concentrated on. It's a common phenomenon where one member of the group is made the scapegoat, and the recipient of all the bullying and sniping; anything the scapegoat does - however good - is always ruthlessly put down. So it is with Eleanor. It's something to do with coming together as a group: having a common enemy (or at least a common whipping-boy/girl) is very good for cementing the group together.

    And finally, of course, they force Eleanor to leave - even though they know the previous stories about the house not allowing people to leave. And she is killed, in the final demonstration of the trio's scapegoating of her.

    I also thought it might be a metaphor for the restrictions of a 1950s woman's life: Eleanor is a superfluous woman. She is not a wife or a mother, and she has no-one to look after now her mother is dead. What, therefore, is the point of her? Women, of course, are supposed to look after other people - and a woman with no-one to look after might as well be dead, even ought to die. And so Eleanor, who has nowhere to go, is thrown out by the trio, and killed.

    I reviewed it here.
     
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  16. Randy M.

    Randy M. Well-Known Member

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    Interesting reading, Theophania, though I'm not entirely convinced. I felt Dr. Montague and Theodora were somewhat more complex and a little more compassionate than that, wavering between keeping their distance and some empathy, but not willing to commit to helping Eleanor and thus mainly ineffectual under the conditions in which they found themselves. What you say about forcing her to leave, that's closer to how I read it. The group-think, we know what's best for you, attitude ultimately fails miserably. And the idea of Eleanor as a superfluous woman also fits; I hadn't thought of it in those terms.


    Randy M.
     
  17. Theophania Elliott

    Theophania Elliott Well-Known Member

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    Oh, Montague and Theodora did have other things going on as well - although I definitely saw Theodora as the kind of woman who has to be the centre of attention. Once Eleanor starts getting attention (from the house), Theodora stops being her friend and starts being spiteful. And the two men instantly take the young, pretty Theodora's side against plain, peculiar Eleanor, despite all the evidence.

    Looking at it as a story, though, to me, it was Eleanor's story. Birth at the beginning (when she escapes her horrible family), development (hints of sexual tension between her and Theodora, then her and Luke), decline (as she is excluded from the group), and finally her inevitable death. A real story arc - up and then down in a parabola. To me, the story (as it is) could not have ended any other way than with Eleanor's death - after all, what did she have to go back to, but her awful sister? And in stories, you don't get to go back to the beginning. You have to go on.

    But then, I think one of the interesting things about it is that there are so many different things going on. Different aspects seem to come to the fore for different people - to some people, it's a ghost story. To me, the paranormal bits were almost window-dressing. It's amazing how Jackson managed to pack so much meaning into so few - and simple - words.

    I do think that a lot of 'literature' that gets published now is so much concentrating on 'beautiful prose' and fancy gimmicks, that actual plot and character get forgotten. I think that in fifty or a hundred years' time, books like The Haunting of Hill House will still be read and admired, while some of the other literature that the critics praise so highly will be forgotten, because they are ultimately pretty corpses, empty of life.
     
  18. Toby Frost

    Toby Frost Well-Known Member

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    I'm afraid I'm still unconvinced. My main objection is that, as a ghost story, it is simply too refined and doesn't work by the conventions of the genre: take my comment about not knowing who is supposed to be where in the room during the hand-holding scene. If you say "This is a horror story set in space", you clearly have to make a horror story and set it in space. My feeling is that Hill House is trying to be both a ghost story and a character study, and only succeeds in being a character study.

    (As an aside, I don't think a ghost story has to be indubitably supernatural to be a ghost story, but I don't think anyone's really suggesting that The Turn of the Screw isn't a ghost story at all).

    Re feminism: this is hard to pin down. It is feminist, I suppose, in the same way that Aliens is feminist: women do stuff or more precisely try to find their own way in the world. But I think Eleanor is too loopy to work as a representation for even a certain type of woman. The book is too specifically about her. I think that's like saying that Jack Torrance from The Shining is representative of writers in general. To me, if Hill House has anything to say about being female in the 1950s, it does so incidentally, the way that Lucky Jim is a surprisingly accurate view into the worse bits of the male mind whilst being a comedy.

    I'm afraid that my overall feeling was of a non-genre author writing genre, but being reluctant to wade in: the ironic dialogue, the weird pacing and the weakness of the ghost-story "stuff" make me feel that the book is too refined for its genre. Although it has strengths, it feels too sophisticated to get down to the business of scaring or unsettling the reader.
     
  19. Randy M.

    Randy M. Well-Known Member

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    It's doubtful I'll change your mind on this, Toby. But I'm responding to suggest where your reaction doesn't really match up with mine.

    And that scene works for me every time. The conversation afterward between Eleanor and Theodora shows Theodora wasn't there, and that oblique comment is what makes it effective. It's not really different in kind and execution from a late scene in "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" by M. R. James: The sheeted figure is more of an implication of something than an actual something; the hand is implies something in the house.

    Concerning The Turn of the Screw: I suspect you're right about the majority of general readers, but critics and academics and some general readers have been arguing whether or not The Turn of the Screw is a ghost story for over 100 years. The only character in Turn... who sees a ghost is the governess. Her conversation and questions are leading, drawing information from the housekeeper about the previous governess and the groundskeeper, Quint. James plays with that, showing how the governess draws inferences from the housekeeper's information and what else she can piece together, but because no one else sees a ghost, there's the possibility she is making it up or delusional, a very young woman overtaxed by a larger responsibility than she's ever had and emotionally needy, desiring her young charges' complete devotion but with no confidence that she has that devotion.

    And Jackson keys off James in not quite ever saying her story is a ghost story.

    As with any book, what the reader brings to it makes or breaks the suspension of disbelief in the characters and premise. I would guess this is what breaks the novel for you and what makes it for me: Where I see Jack Torrance as a plausible representative of alcoholics in general, in Eleanor I see the plausible consequences of being tied to home, expected to care for an invalided family member, life and imagination stifled by obligations foisted on her, which was certainly not unusual for women of that time or before. Or since for that matter.

    Further, the way in which Eleanor's mother died leads to a feeling of guilt (possibly even deserved) while her sister's assumption she'll remain meek little Eleanor and do as she's told, essentially care taking for the sister's family, prompts a rebellion for which she is emotionally unprepared to follow through. That engenders the neediness she exhibits after reaching Hill House; the loopiness you see appears to me as neuroticism incubated and grown in a familial pressure cooker. I don't doubt Eleanor's plausibility as a character or as a representative of the expectations placed on some women, and I really don't think that was just a 1950s thing, either.

    Did I mention before that I've read The Haunting of Hill House 5 or 6 times and every time find it a beautifully written book with a story that resonates for me?

    (Or had you maybe already guessed something like that?)


    Randy M.
     
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  20. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    We have a place where those who'd like to discuss this topic can do so --

    Henry James: "The Turn of the Screw" and More

    I've taken the liberty of pasting Randy's comment above there.
     
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