No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, December 11, 2016

2016/70: The Haunting of Hill House -- Shirley Jackson

"When I am afraid, I can see perfectly the sensible, beautiful not-afraid side of the world, I can see chairs and tables and windows staying the same, not affected in the least, and I can see things like the careful woven texture of the carpet, not even moving. But when I am afraid I no longer exist in any relation to these things. I suppose because things are not afraid." [loc. 1984]

Eleanor Vance is invited by Doctor Montague, an investigator of the supernatural, to stay for the summer in Hill House, an allegedly-haunted country mansion. She becomes friends with Theodora, an extrovert and empathetic artist with a decidedly bohemian bent. Both of them, as well as Dr Montague and Luke Sanderson (the latter being heir to the house), are amused by the refusal of the caretakers, Mr and Mrs Dudley, to stay overnight at Hill House.

And yes, there is definitely something strange going on. There are sounds at night; there is writing on the walls, in bright red; Eleanor holds Theodora's hand for comfort, only to find that Theodora is nowhere near her. Even more strangely, when Montague's wife and her friend Mr Parker arrive with their spirit-writing and seances, they experience nothing out of the ordinary at all.

Eleanor is being shaped by the house -- or perhaps she's shaping it. Perhaps the house recognises lawful prey. Perhaps Eleanor is just very impressionable: she is haunted, in the usual natural sense, by the memory of her invalid mother banging on the wall to summon her. She has led a sheltered life: no wonder she turns towards Theodora's friendship like a flower towards the sun. Perhaps Hill House's oddities are a product of Eleanor's imagination.

Perhaps they are not.

The Haunting of Hill House is chilling precisely because so little happens: and the person to whom it does not happen is Eleanor, who is the focus of the book. Only gradually do we realise that her viewpoint may not be entirely reliable: that she is not necessarily experiencing the same events as the other guests.

Shirley Jackson's writing is restrained, almost claustrophobic, and deceptively plain. I suspect this is another novel which will reward rereading. For one thing, I want to see how that sense of building horror is done.

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