I’ve just finished my second reading of Shirley Jackson’s short ghostly novel. Short novels are such a blessing in this digital age – just long enough, in this case 246 pages, to capture and maintain my ever-decreasing attention span (your own attention span may be severely challenged during this long, oh so long post.) And here’s another thing. I’ve gradually lost the physical ability to write. What used to come so naturally, via years of filling up school books and exam papers, has now been lost to years of typing away at computer keyboards. I have evolved. Thanks to a secretarial course, aeons ago, which taught me how to type, I am one with my keyboard. My thoughts simultaneously appear on my digitally simulated paper as though machine and I are one. If I’m required to ever put pen to paper, then I feel like a cavewoman laboriously trying to etch a few illegible symbols into rock. What a cumbersome and unwieldy object the pen is and how time consuming it is to try and write with the thing; like trying to learn to eat with chopsticks. And is that how I form an ‘h’? Why do my ‘h’s’ sometimes look like ‘L’s’? And then I notice the raised lump at the side of the middle finger on my right hand, the one formed by years of holding a pen. How prehistoric. Yes, I’ve evolved into a digital writer.
Shirley Jackson wasn’t a digital writer. She used an old-fashioned typewriter and flurries of notes which she left all over the house. She wrote about the paranormal, the strange, the psychologically disturbed and the lonely. In early photos she looks like what some would call an absolutely typical Nerd (Nerdess?) – mousy and plain, no makeup, owl rimmed spectacles, un-styled hair, just about the meekest most non-threatening person you could ever meet. I feel, however, that if a make-over team could have got hold of her circa 1936, then they could have really made something of her, but Shirley had no interest in her looks. She’s another striking example, in fact, to not judge a book by its cover and (even more so) as she morphed into a fatter, rather unattractive and mannish version of herself, during her forties – dying at 48 in her sleep, in 1965.
Rapid research – mostly via snippets from the biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin (a book I may or may not get) – reveals a scholarly husband who taught at an all-girls arts college in Vermont and regularly slept with ex-students and mutual friends, in fact anyone he could get his hands on it seems – and he offered no help around the house either, just to bang the final nail in the marital coffin. The fact that mutual ‘friends’ and ex-students were so willing to hit the sack with Stanley Edgar Hyman (the husband) is as freakishly abnormal as his wife’s less than normal stories, being that Stanley was no winner in the Handsome Sweepstakes and was also probably less of a ‘man’ than Shirley.
For, although Stanley Edgar Hyman was a literary critic of some note (never heard of him, but then I’m not American) it was Shirley’s literary star that eventually shone the brightest, as she produced original works of fiction alongside humorous (despite her hellish home life) articles about family life for a women’s magazine, in the process out-earning and out-clevering her husband by a wide margin indeed. And she did all this whilst doing all the housework, giving birth to four kids and waiting on her husband, in a hand and foot fashion at his bidding. And all she got for it was serial adultery along with a series of anxiety issues (although the anxiety had been present from childhood.) But you sow what you reap and who now remembers Mr Hyman – whereas Shirley is still read and still on Amazon’s book lists.
Hyman recognised that he was a bit player on the world’s literary stage and forced Shirley to work all the time, to keep them financially afloat which, not unexpectedly perhaps, made Shirley take to the booze (as did her husband) and the pair of them seemed to sail through life in a drunken haze. To the boozing, Shirley added cigarettes and drugs, in the form of prescribed ‘uppers and downers’, in an effort to control her weight, but also to deal with underlying depression and anxiety, as far as I can tell mostly caused by being Mr Hyman’s wife. But there was also the case of her abusive mother, who was apt to send her letters commenting on how fat and disgusting Shirley was getting in publicity photos, adding once, however, that she knew ‘excess weight is hard on your heart and your blood pressure and I hated to see you using yourself so badly,’ which to me suggests she cared a smidgen more for her daughter than did her son-in-law. However, the mother did once tell Shirley that she was the ‘product of a failed abortion,’ which isn’t very nice however you choose to look at it. That Shirley grew fatter may also have been down to Mr Hyman, as he was prone to force feeding his wife in the manner of a goose, according to her agent, probably to keep her in her downtrodden place. That sort of toxic husband/mother mix was bound to spill over into her books and their subject matter.
I found Shirley Jackson a few years ago because Stephen King told me she was a genius and that The Haunting of Hill House was probably the greatest supernatural story of the 20th century. I’ll give it a go thought I and found it at my local bookshop. But I rushed it, having read too many things before it, in a reading splurge resulting in book fatigue, and then put it away on a bookshelf up in the loft. Last week I had a major clean out of the loft and found it again (or maybe it found me in a spookily Jackson fashion) whilst chucking out loads of old unwanted books. And the second reading was a very different matter indeed. I’d go so far as to say a sort of revelation. For one thing I read every sentence carefully and I undertook a modicum of research.
How had I missed the title for one thing? The Haunting of Hill House, not at Hill House, or in Hill House. How odd, thought I; this maybe wasn’t a haunted house but a house that ‘got’ haunted. Shirley certainly sets up Hill House as your average Victorian Gothic nightmare of a house. All dark gloomy corridors, heavy dark furniture, massive velvet curtains, huge staircases. It features myriad rooms all over the place, their doors all resolutely and spookily shut. A lot like the Welsh holiday cottage we stayed in a couple of years ago, that gave me such a dramatic case of the heebie-jeebies. Hill House is also huge and features a very out of place tower from which the last resident hung herself. Behind the house are a set of even huger hills which sort of lower over it. We know Hill House isn’t the sort of place that anyone in their right mind should go to for a weekend break, because Shirley tells us that the house is ‘not sane.’ Peculiar thing to call a house, but then Shirley was a peculiarly gifted writer. Here’s the oft quoted opening paragraph:
NO LIVE organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
In fact, this is exactly how I felt about that Welsh holiday home.
That opening paragraph is a sign of the utter confusion to come. Here Hill House is ‘upright,’ ‘neat’ and ‘firm’ but, later in the novel, Jackson describes the house as having been built in a deliberately off kilter way by its owner Hugh Crain. The walls are all just an inch too long (really, would a person really notice that unless they were unhinged in the first place?) The doors won’t stay open, but always swing shut of their own accord. The stairs are built to induce vertigo. All little architectural tricks (or faults) designed to induce anxiety, or the feeling perhaps that a ghost is at work. This again raises the question as to whether the house is haunted or built by a madman who wanted to play tricks on receptive minds. Hugh Crain built Hill House and he certainly appears to have been a gothic monster, commissioning a gigantic statue of himself and his two daughters, which stands in the drawing room, described as ‘huge and grotesque and somehow whitely naked.’ He also compiled a scrapbook for one of his daughters, in 1881, which is a heavily religious tome warning his daughter against all kinds of ‘sin.’ It would stand as evidence against ramming a religious education down any kids throats in a court of law, it’s that scary and shocking – sadly this kind of religious mania was often the sort of abusive parenting thing the Victorians went in for. Filled with horrible medieval etchings and images of Hell, it contains sentiments such as this for his young daughter to reflect upon:
‘Honor thy father and thy mother, daughter, authors of thy being, upon whom a heavy charge has been laid, that they lead their child in innocence and righteousness along the fearful narrow path to everlasting bliss, and render her up at last to her God a pious and a virtuous soul; reflect, Daughter, upon the joy in Heaven as the souls of these tiny creatures wing upward, released before they have learned aught of sin or faithlessness, and make it thine increasing duty to remain as pure as these.’
Talk about leading lambs to the slaughter.
It’s 1959 and enter front of stage our main character, Eleanor Vance, who is not in her right mind and, like the house, probably not sane. She also may as well be Shirley Jackson, they’ve got so much in common. Shirley had her vindictive, domineering and hyper critical mother. Eleanor has been the sole carer of her demanding, invalid mother, trapped at home until she escapes aged 32 when her mother dies. Shirley was plagued by anxieties and feelings of isolation, particularly in her marriage to the yukky Mr Hyman, whose philandering he legitimised under his stupidly highbrow objection to monogamy on ‘philosophical grounds.’ That anyone fell for this academic shtick just goes to show how thick and desperate (or liberally unprincipled) his average young Arts Major (in America-speak) or mutual ‘friend’ could be. Towards the end of her life Jackson wrote Hyman a letter which stated: “you once wrote me a letter (i know you hate my remembering these things) telling me that i would never be lonely again. i think that was the first, the most dreadful, lie you ever told me.” Again, that Shirley had a predilection for deeply unnerving tales shouldn’t surprise anyone. She also didn’t appear to use capital letters.
Like her author, Eleanor is plagued by little and big anxieties, and the novel begins with her nicking her sister’s car, a car they have shared ownership of since their mother died. An argument between Eleanor, her sister and her brother-in-law had necessitated that Eleanor steal the car because neither believed that an unmarried woman should have the independence to go off on a car journey on her own. When I first read the book, it didn’t seem weird to me at all that Eleanor would get up at the crack of dawn, creep off into a garage in town, where the family car was stored, and then run away. But it is weird, especially when she accidentally bumps into a little old lady on her way to stealing the car, making the woman drop her grocery bag in the process. This little old woman appears to be some kind of fury from Hell, as she continually screams ‘Damn you!’ at Eleanor over and over again. Surely a wild overreaction to the loss of a bit of cheesecake and a roll. She goes on to smile ‘wickedly,’ as Eleanor pays for a taxi to take her home (from guilt), and then changes tack completely by curiously saying ‘I’ll be praying for you dearie,’ a sentiment which is almost as scary as ‘Damn you!’ This small incident at the beginning of the book is absolutely typical of the rest of the book. You simply don’t know where you are with Shirley Jackson. Is this old woman more than she seems, or a sign of the perplexing things to come, in that she begins by ‘damning’ Eleanor at the start of her journey (perhaps to her hellish fate at the end of the book) and then ends with an offer to save her soul.
Eleanor steals the car because a Dr Montague had written to her, asking that she come to Hill House as his guest to explore the ‘various unsavoury stories which had been circulated about the house.’ He had written to Eleanor because she had once featured in a poltergeist phenomenon. Her father had died when she was 12 and a month later showers of stones had fallen on their house, lasting for three days. It’s taken as read that Eleanor provoked the stone showers and not her sister. Or maybe the Doctor knew he’d get nowhere contacting the married sister, whom Eleanor hates, along with her five year old niece. There’s another jarring note for you; that our shy, mousy and plain (I assume Eleanor is as plain as her author, although we get no physical descriptions of any of the characters) protagonist has it within her to HATE a five year old child. Not so meek and not so mild. Eleanor also has no friends.
Hill House is over a hundred miles away. The grand auto theft is Eleanor’s first independent act in a lifetime of subservience and invisibility. ‘The journey itself was her positive action, her destination vague, unimagined, perhaps non-existent.‘ Oh, hang on a minute, does Hill House even exist? Is the looney Eleanor just going for a mad joy riding spree? Why does Shirley keep doing this to us?
‘Journeys end in lovers meeting’ Eleanor continually sings (in her own head) along with ‘present mirth hath present laughter’ and ‘in delay there lies no plenty,’ as she bowls (to borrow from Danny Dyer) along in her stolen car. I bothered to look these lines up, as we all know that recurrent singing in tales of the supernatural never ends well. They’re fragments from Shakespeare’s song ‘O Mistress Mine where are you Roaming?’ from Twelfth Night. The title fits Eleanor, as she goes roaming around the highways and byways on her way to Hill House, her mildly mad mind chatter filling the pages. But why Twelfth Night? Is bothering to look up Twelfth Night taking a literary analysis a bit too far?
Twelfth Night is set in Illyria, an imaginary kingdom, and its protagonist is Viola, a young woman who is shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria and, from thereon in, the play is an Elizabethan riot of cross-dressing lunacy (or ‘disguise’ in the Bard’s day) and comic love triangle-based madness. How does this possibly relate to Eleanor and Hill House? Is Hill House an imaginary place (as previously mentioned.) Is Eleanor emotionally shipwrecked and alone after her mother’s death, even though she had hated her enforced role as carer and thereby hated her mother? And just why did she hate her mother so much? Are Eleanor, Theodora and Luke a love triangle – at times this is sort of hinted at. There’s even a bit of ‘cross dressing’ when Theodora wears Eleanor’s clothes, because hers have been ruined during a haunting, which turns out to probably never have happened. There’s also the bit where they all discuss fear and Luke says that fear for him is: ‘seeing ourselves clearly and without disguise’ – referencing in a way the disguise Viola takes up in Twelfth Night. But I’ve got ahead of myself in mentioning these other characters.
Eleanor is of course not the only character in the book. Dr Montague, who wrote to her, is an academic with an interest in the paranormal, who rents Hill House for three months to ‘investigate the causes and effects of psychic disturbances in a house commonly known as haunted’ (his stay, along with the rest of the ‘cast list’ lasts just a week.) He’s not prepared to do this alone (the coward) and trawls through psychic societies, sensational newspapers etc to compile a list of likely candidates to be his assistants. These assistants must all have shown some psychic ability. He appears to have sent letters to twelve candidates, four replied, two dropped out, leaving Eleanor (who had replied instantly, desperate to escape) and a young woman called Theodora (no surname) the polar opposite of the naïve, cloistered (she had an ‘inability to face strong sunlight without blinking’) painfully shy Eleanor. Theodora (Theo) is a beautiful artist for whom duty and conscience mean nothing (perhaps a nod to all those Art Majors her husband flaunted in Shirley’s face.) Theo had once correctly identified a series of hidden cards in a psychic laboratory experiment. She also appears to be a lesbian (totally unestablished in a 1950s story.) Is that why she and Eleanor prance around the house and grounds together, sometimes holding hands, sometimes hugging and sharing confidences? Until cool Theodora gets nasty and coldly breaks off the friendship. Was the friendship all in Eleanor’s mind? The third assistant is Luke Sanderson, nephew of the owner of Hill House, and said owner won’t let Montague rent the house without a family member being present. Luke has no psychic ability. He is also said to be a liar and a thief. There’s no evidence for this apart from his equally cold treatment of Eleanor towards the end of the book.
The rest of the cast list includes Mr and Mrs Dudley, the caretakers of Hill House, who both behave like unnerving, characterless robots, repeating the same lines over and over again, comically emphasising their refusal to stay in the house after dark. They are clearly meant to be stand-ins for Igor, or any other horror story caretaker/assistant. Then there’s Montague’s wife, referred to as Mrs Montague, a no-nonsense, practical woman, also a ghost hunter, who arrives with her friend Arthur, the headmaster of a boys’ school, towards the end of the book. Why Mrs Montague hangs around with the weird, overly masculine Arthur, in the absence of her husband isn’t explained, but it’s all rather strange. They come equipped with a planchette (like a Ouija board) to summon up the spirits of Hill House, which remain quiet, although they do receive a message for Eleanor. All the psychic activity throughout the book is directed at Eleanor in the form of messages written on walls, either in blood or chalk, and messages from the planchette. The messages are disjointed and repeat the same words: HELP ELEANOR COME HOME LOST.
We are clearly expected to find Mrs Montague absurd, as she comes in clucking like a mother hen, ordering everybody around and pointing out how useless her husband is, at ghost hunting. The others find her an annoying and unwelcome presence. I thought quite the opposite. She brings with her a welcome ‘common sense’ and, during her and Arthur’s stay, they hear or see nothing untoward. She even volunteers to sleep in the dreaded nursery, the clearly most haunted room in the place, with its freezing cold spot just outside the door. And nothing happens, save for her complaining that the room needs a good clean as it nearly suffocated her with its dusty smell. The only upsetting thing Arthur notices is a branch which taps against his window all night: ‘drove me crazy, tapping and tapping’ (echoes of Wuthering Heights.) But both are adamant that the house isn’t haunted.
Again, Shirley is messing with my mind. Who do I believe? The quartet who’ve come to Hill House to investigate hauntings, and who all experience strange goings on but who are all slightly off kilter in their own ways (like the house) or Mrs Montague and Arthur?
This unsettling confusion is added to when Eleanor really begins to lose the plot.
When Eleanor arrives at Hill House and is shown to her room (the blue room, oddly that Welsh holiday cottage also had colour themed rooms) she thinks to herself: ‘I am not the sort of person for Hill House but I can’t think of anyone who would be.’ when she is in fact exactly the sort of slightly deranged, lonely and desperate character that such a house would play upon. It’s here that I began to question if Eleanor’s continual inner monologues on the activities and people at the house are true. Is she seeing things with a warped eye?
The novel is less about Horror than it is about Eleanor’s disintegration into madness. At the beginning she joins in with Theodora and Luke’s witty 1950s type banter, the whole while her inner voice commenting on how brilliant it is that she finally has friends, is part of the in-crowd. And I went along with this because Theodora is all nicey-nice and huggy-huggy, but things soon take a malicious turn when Theo begins to upset Eleanor, just because she has a certain way of sitting by the fire (like a cat.) As things progress, she thinks of the lovely Theodora as wicked, beastly, soiled and dirty. ‘I would like to watch her dying,’ she thinks, without Theo doing anything obviously upsetting to Eleanor at all – apart from accusing her of writing the ghostly messages.
And then I began to think, did Eleanor write the messages? Why would Theodora accuse her of such a thing? What versions are we getting of Dr Montague, Luke and Theodora – Shirley’s versions or Eleanor’s? Can anything going on inside Eleanor’s head be trusted.
The major hauntings that take place are loud bangs on the walls and doors at night, accompanied by incoherent babblings from neighbouring, empty rooms. Once or twice Eleanor wakes up at night calling, ‘Mother? Mother?’ Eleanor refers to the fact that her invalid mother used to knock on her bedroom wall at night, to attract Eleanor’s attention. Is all the knocking and banging on walls the ghost of Eleanor’s mother, whose followed her to Hill House. Is the repeated message, ‘Eleanor (or sometimes Nell, Nellie) come home,’ her mother asking her to come back. Eleanor tells Theodora at one point that she may have killed her mother, because she heard her knocking on the wall for her medicine but fell asleep again. Did she intentionally ignore the knocking? Is that why the impressively loud knocking sound is filling up Hill House. Is it a poltergeist projection of Eleanor’s guilt.
One night, Eleanor awakes with an urge to go down to the library – a room that previously repulsed her. She closes the bedroom door softly, not wanting to wake Theodora, although she notes that Theodora is in the habit of sleeping soundly. What? Since they all came to stay at Hill House, Eleanor and Theodora have been scared out of their wits during at least two nights and yet, here, it’s implied that Theodora has been sleeping soundly the whole time. Eleanor runs down to the library but is met in its doorway by a stench of decay –‘ Mother?’ she says and steps quickly back. Just how long did she leave her mother in her bedroom back home after she died, if ‘mother’ and a nauseating odour go together? Her mother apparently answers her from upstairs, ‘come along’ she says and Eleanor goes prancing and dancing off upstairs, in her nightdress and her bare feet, knocking on the occupants doors, not just knocking but pounding with her fists. I found Eleanor dancing around the house, like a spirit, easily the most eerie and truly frightening part of the book. Had Eleanor been knocking on the walls and doors the whole time? Theodora wakes up and alerts the Doctor to the fact that Eleanor is not in her room. ‘Poor house, Eleanor thought, I had forgotten Eleanor.’ WHAT? Who is Eleanor now, or what has she become? Is she verging on schizophrenia or has she been schizophrenic all along? The NHS tells me that schizophrenia is characterised by: hallucinations, delusions, muddled thoughts and changes in behaviour. Seems to fit Eleanor like a glove.
The deluded part definitely seems to ‘fit’ her friendships with Luke and Theodora, who both seem to turn against her at the end. I’ve been there, believing that someone was my friend and then there’s the cold realisation that you’re not a part of their inner circle at all. I have a feeling that alienation and complete loneliness are what this book is all about. Eleanor’s feelings of finally being included in the ‘fold’ for once in her life are soon replaced by distrust and paranoia. In a really spooky section in the book she goes around eavesdropping on people to find out what they really think of her. She hides in the shadows of the summerhouse (like a ghost) to hear what Luke and Theodora really think of her and they don’t mention her at all, not even when they wonder if Dr Montague will mention them in his book. She overhears Mrs Montague chatting away to Mrs Dudley in the kitchen, about Luke and Theodora, and Mrs Dudley sounds completely normal and natural, not like a female Igor at all (again what? How do we reconcile such a character change.) And again, they don’t mention Eleanor. Has Eleanor been so mousy and plain and quiet that nobody has actually noticed she’s there. Have all the sparkling conversations between Eleanor and the others all been in her own head? Is Eleanor the ghost of Hill House? Or is Eleanor still at home having dreamt the whole thing up? ‘I could say,’ Eleanor put in smiling, ‘’’all three of you are in my imagination; none of this is real.’” she says at one point during a conversation with her fellow inmates at Hill House. The one thing this book does is leave you with so many unanswered questions.
As the book ends, Dr Montague and the others decide that they’ve got to put a stop to Eleanor’s lunacy and order her out of the house and back home, for her own psychological safety. Eleanor is distraught. She loves revolting Hill House. It fills her with joy. It makes her feel real, like a person in her own right who deserves to exist. And besides, it’s started hugging her in the form of a shape made from heavy air (or something) making her feel safe and loved, like no living person ever did. The fact that Shirley makes it clear that Hill House is evil doesn’t bother Eleanor at all – that’s how desperate she is.
They all force her back into her stolen car (which Mrs Montague informs them is actually stolen and also appears to inform me, the reader, that a good deal of the haunting stuff never happened.) And they force Eleanor to drive off, all standing in a row waving goodbye in a friendly enough fashion. But Eleanor’s having none of it. Her inner voice is telling her that Hill House is hers and she has every right to stay there, and the way to stay there is to drive her car straight at a big oak tree at the bottom of the drive. Just before she hits the tree she does, to her credit, think, ‘Why am I doing this? Why don’t they stop me?’
So Eleanor dies and the rest of the party leave and Hill House remains upright and not sane.
The truly haunting thing about The Haunting of Hill House is Shirley Jackson. Her remarkable writing style, which gets into your head and won’t leave, and her sad, anxiety-ridden life with a bloke who wasn’t very nice at all. Like Eleanor, Shirley longed to escape a suffocating situation (her marriage) and may have done so had she not died during one of her daily afternoon naps. When she finished The Haunting of Hill House she had a major breakdown, which caused agoraphobia for two years and also caused her to say, ‘I have written myself into the house.’ Now that is horrific, and you’ve only to read the book to see how plausible that is. When she recovered her mental equilibrium, via therapy and drugs, she wrote that she was sure she would only write happy things from now on and then went upstairs for that fatal afternoon nap.
That’s a twist worthy of any Gothic horror novel.