Friday, 12 May 2017

#8 A scary book

The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson

Published in 1959, this book is definitely THE haunted house story for those who love that genre.  It can be said to be a template for the classic haunted house tale. Belonging to the sub-category of the psychological ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House  is easily the eeriest books one may ever read – all the more so since there is no ghost in it.

This book has one of the most unnerving opening lines:

“[…]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.”

This is the same line that ends the book as well. *creepy*

The story begins with Dr. Montague, a psychic researcher, wanting to rent Hill House for three months and conduct a study on the causes and effects of psychic disturbances in a house commonly known as “haunted”. He searches for and invites a few people, who have had certain psychic experiences in the past to join him at Hill House to conduct the study. Though he sent out a dozen letters – only two people finally come. 

One is Eleanor Vance (Nell), thirty-two years old, socially awkward, silent and shy with a dark past. The other being Theodora or “Theo” as she is called, self-confident and bold, she has an uncanny ability to sense things. Though poles apart both Nell and Theo, become very close to each while they stay at Hill House. The other participant of this ‘group study’ is Luke Sanderson who happens to be the heir apparent of this mansion and is forced by his aunt to stay here under the watchful eye of Dr. Montague, since she wants him to stay out of trouble.

The mansion itself is particularly haunting, from the start it exerts an unnerving influence on the readers through the pages.  The mood that prevails this books is one that of physical and psychic claustrophobia – a near perfect gothic dwelling.Creepy things have happened at Hill House. Its history is narrated by Dr. Montague to the collected group during their first evening there.

“Hill House has a reputation for insistent hospitality; it seemingly dislikes letting its guests get away. The last person who tried to leave Hill House in darkness – it was eighteen years ago, I grant you – was killed at the turn in the driveway.”

The background story of Hill House is filled with untimely deaths, insanity and suicide. The house does seem to be alive in a diseased way. A ‘deranged’ house, filled with unnatural noises, ghostly visitations and unnerving disturbances. It seems like the house is evil itself.

“It has enchained and destroyed its people and their lives, it is a place of contained ill will…..[the house] watches every move you make.”

Believe me when I say that just looking at houses will creep you out for some time after you read this.

Several terrifying occurrences start happening at Hill house, one such moment is when at night Eleanor holds out for Theo’s hand while their door is being relentlessly pounded by someone or something outside. She feels Theo is holding her hand too tight and keeps asking her to relax her hold. When the noise finally ends and she looks towards Theo, she realizes she wasn’t holding Theo’s hand at all – but then whose hand was she holding?

“Good God,” Eleanor said, flinging herself out of bed and across the room to stand shuddering in a corner, “good God – whose hands was I holding?”

 And many other such unexplained occurrences continue to happen.

[*Spoiler Alert – I can’t really guarantee how much of the climax I will give out after this point – so be warned! *]

Eleanor Vance is the key character in this story since we experience the novel from within her consciousness. Shirley Jackson, the author, apparently often wrote about solitary, fragile, lonely girls but who carry within them a daring alter-ego (Case in point, her other works like We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Hangsaman).

Eleanor Vance is a remarkable narrator for this story since she is a person who is constantly drifting in and out of a dream state even before she reaches Hill House. She endlessly imagines her fantasies of life as she wishes to live in eventually. We wouldn’t realize it at first but Eleanor Vance is a classic example of an unreliable narrator.
Authors often employ unreliable narrators whose lack of trustworthiness is crucial to the construction of both novels’ mystery. Often in books like these the reader starts out trusting the narrator and only as the story goes on realizes that something is amiss. The unreliable narrator is particularly useful for horror and supernatural fiction writers who want readers to question the line between fantasy and reality.  It is the unreliability of the narrator’s authority that leads the story to its climatic end. 

“Eleanor thought childishly; I will never be able to sleep again with all this noise coming from inside my head; how can these others hear the noise when it is coming from inside my head? I am disappearing inch by inch into this house, I am going apart a little bit at a time because all this noise is breaking me.” 

In its 1963 film adaptation (The Haunting) Julie Harris plays the role of Eleanor Vance, through whose conscience we are told the story. It was a tough role to portray since a lot of the thoughts of the character is essential to the story but she did bring out the fragile and unsettled mind of the character to life. 
She had lived her entire adult life caring for her sick and demanding mother, who had died two months earlier. She was living with her sister and brother-in-law whom she despised when she got a call from Dr. Montague. For Eleanor, coming to Hill House was something she had been hoping for all her life – a sense of belonging. In the end, even as they attempt to send her away for her own safety, she drives her car into a tree in the driveway and dies – since she never wanted to leave Hill House, her wish had come true in a way. 

“ ..[Hill House] wanted to consume us, take us into itself, make us a part of the house…..No ghost in the long histories of ghosts has ever hurt anyone physically. The only damage done is by the victim to himself.”

This book is definitely eerie (not scary), but the dialogues between the characters will leave you feeling irritated and wondering what exactly are they talking about. But probably it is because of the unreliable narration that this happened because while reading there were certain gaps which didn’t make much sense, and it is not a book that will give you all the answers either. Apparently it does seem to be her style of writing. Try reading this, her first published short story – The Lottery – it will give you a hint of her style, and if intrigued you can try and read more of her writing. She is a relatively unexplored writer, but interest in her works are gaining ground in the 21st century. 

The spooky happenings at Hill House are modeled on actual events from real life haunted mansions – like that of the Ballechin House (most haunted mansion in Scotland) and Borley Rectory (most haunted house in England).

This book establishes how an intensely eerie atmosphere can contribute to the workings of a human mind. Moving at a moderate pace, The Haunting of Hill House is as much as a tale of a haunted house and at the same time a tale about the dark corridors and locked rooms in the unconscious mind.


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