American Literature, Book review., Books, Consciousness, Dale Bailey, Eleanor Vance, Ghost Story, Ghosts, Hill House, History, Horror, Literary criticism, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, The Haunting of Hill House, The Wizard of Oz, Unreliable Narrator
[Previously on Tychy – “The Road to Hill House (1/3): The Anguish of Influences.”]
Eleanor Vance’s drive to Hill House, with its flights of fancy through fairyland pastures and enchanted oleanders, has the fantastic, glamorous quality of Dorothy’s journey down the Yellow Brick Road (particularly in the 1939 movie). Both at least begin with a witch. On her plucky mission to steal her sister’s car and escape her home city, Eleanor’s generous spirit, if a little of Dorothy’s haplessness, is evinced when she bumps into a grouchy witch and wins her blessing by offering to buy back her dinner. In keeping with the prevailing ambiguity of Shirley Jackson‘s novel, it is unclear, or even unimportant, whether this is a Good or a Wicked Witch. The Munchkins whom Eleanor meets on her subsequent journey do not share in the magic: “The girl stared at her; perhaps no one had ever before had the audacity to call Hillsdale a pretty little town.” One may dare say that there is even a pale little spirit waiting somewhere in Hill House, pulling various levers like the Wizard of Oz backstage in the Emerald City.
Stephen King, writing about Eleanor’s journey in Danse Macabre (1981), asserts that, “the depth of this sudden fantasy is meant to startle us, and it does.” In American Nightmares (1999) Dale Bailey finds that this “languorous opening chapter… serves to establish the rhythm of her [Eleanor’s] thoughts, the emotional vulnerabilities which the house will later exploit.” He may also reflect something of our own response when claiming that, “Eleanor’s separation from the workaday world – the ease with which she slips out of reality and into fantasy – is for the first-time reader remarkable, even shocking.”
Literary critics invariably distinguish Hill House as a character rather than a setting, and a villainous one at that. Eleanor regards the house as a “monster,” considering it “an act of moral strength to life her foot and set it on the bottom step… her deep unwillingness to touch Hill House for the first time came directly from the vivid feeling that it was waiting for her…” She later likens herself to a “small creature swallowed whole by a monster… and the monster feels my tiny little movements inside.”
One may initially compare the old world grandeur of Hill House with the naivety of these encroaching Americans, just as M.R. James‘ enlightened scholars had blundered into various ancient traps. But Hill House is not staightforwardly a malignant power, for the sense of freedom and fantasy which carries Eleanor down the road to Hill House is already established behind its facade. The consciousness which pervades Hill House is in Eleanor’s head to begin with. If she flees the city because it is too difficult or tiresome for her, Hill House is revealed to be of the same mind, and it provides a refuge from modernity, practical concerns, and social obligations.
Boldly echoing that nursery rhyme about the crooked man, we are told of Hugh Crain’s house that “every angle is slightly wrong.” Dr Montague discovers that, “Angles which you assume are the right angles you are accustomed to, and have every right to expect are true, are actually a fraction of a degree off in one direction or another.” He concludes that Hugh Crain “must have detested other people and their sensible squared-away houses.” If indeed, “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality…,” then this statement of intent may find further explanation in Theodora’s remark that the Victorians “simply wallowed in this kind of great billowing overdone sort of thing and buried themselves in folds of velvet and tassels and purple plush.”
This house ends up “snuggling” below the hills like somebody in bed, or perhaps it is dreaming wildly under the covers. In this respect, is not insignificant that during the novel’s screechingly Gothic faux-climax, when the house starts “dancing,” Eleanor nods off – something which would have never happened at the House of Usher.
Hill House most obviously resembles the infamous Winchester House, the ultimate in suburban Gothicism, a Californian mansion with over 160 rooms which was built by the superstitious widow of the rifle magnate to baffle the advances of vengeful ghosts. Like the Tower of Babel, Winchester House was continually extended, with scant regard for either function or aesthetics, but Hill House is obscurely ordered, with its concentric circles and the direction of Mrs Dudley’s catchphrases. The building may be a sort of architectural tantrum – unpredictable, obnoxious, and with angrily slamming doors – but it proclaims its freedom from the outside world in the clearest of voices.
If at Hill House “the carpeting glowed in dim convoluted patterns, the walls were papered and gilt, and a marble cupid beamed fatuously down at them from the mantel,” corresponding decorative flourishes are everywhere glowing and indeed fatuous in Jackson’s own descriptions of the house. Theodora imagines, “rooms opening out of each other and doors going everywhere at once and swinging shut when you come, and I bet that somewhere there are mirrors that make you look all sideways and an air hose to blow up your skirts, and something that comes out of a dark passage and laughs in your face – ” The very prose of this story seems to mirror Hill House’s own liberated or unhinged spirit, just as one may consider the words of the Bible to be the speech of God.
No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrows of a cornice. Almost any house, caught unexpectedly or at an odd angle, can turn a deeply humorous look on a watching person; even a mischievous little chimney, or a dormer like a dimple, can catch up a beholder with a sense of fellowship; but a house arrogant and hating, never off guard, can only be evil. This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity.
The solemnity of this horror is offset by Jackson’s prancing eye for touches of “glee” and “mischievous” little chimneys. Her description is perky but never jolly, for there is always a starched, chill quality to Jackson’s writing. She is like a cat with a mouse – those commas and semicolons repeatedly letting the sentences go and then catching them again – releasing no meaning of any certainty or consequence. Jackson is obviously playing with us, but she is too playful. The house is only frightening, or indeed negative at all, because Jackson and her characters tell us that it is so. This message is not necessarily undermined, but rather complicated, by their tortuous playfulness.
Eleanor is apparently “frightened” once inside Hill House, without being able to explain why, whilst Theodora is wisecracking as soon as she arrives, and before long they are both chirruping away like skylarks. After the first haunting, the doctor’s “eyes were lighted with the same brightness they found, all, in one another; it is excitement, Eleanor thought; we are all enjoying ourselves.” This immediately contradicts the established line that Hill House, “was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope.”
This house of mirth has already gone to Eleanor’s head. She is flushed with a massive hypersensitivity, the exhilaration of a toddler running from its mother’s reach or a virgin with a lover finally at their fingertips. She revels in the tiniest of details, until the narrative is tingling with her sensations, and she luxuriates in “the thin stem of her glass between her fingers, the stiff pressure of the chair against her back, the faint movements of air through the room which were barely perceptible in small stirrings of tassels and beads.” Stephen King captures something of this spirit when he describes being in Hill House as “like tripping on a low-watt dosage of LSD, where everything seems strange and you feel you will begin to hallucinate at any time. But you never quite do.” This sensibility grows gradually more lucid, or hallucinogenic, until it may finally extend beyond a pure present to register ghostly voices and footsteps.
Eleanor’s tragedy is to substitute the apparent freedoms within Hill House for the real freedoms of the outside world, a world (if this novel is indeed set in the 1950s) which is newly liberated from war and despair. But Eleanor is not the only member of Dr Montague’s party to eat the lotus. Admittedly, her fellow partygoers increasingly seem to peel away from her tragic destiny, and some were never subscribers to begin with. The Dudleys are supposedly part of the furniture, indifferent to ghosts and guests alike, and concerned purely with keeping the house ticking along. They are never suspected of generating or in any way faking the psychic phenomena, even though Mrs Dudley has a discreet access to all areas of the house through her kitchen. Any knowledge that they may possess about the ghost is never sought, and this failure is typical of Dr Montague: a grossly unscientific adventurer, who attempts to reduce the torments and mysteries which engulf those within Hill House to recordable material “phenomena.”
Theodora fancies that Dr Montague will “reduce us all to figures on a graph.” The doctor perceives that, “People… are always so anxious to get things out into the open where they can put a name to them, even a meaningless name, so long as it has something of a scientific ring.” He is not remotely a scientist himself when describing how “the evil is the house itself, I think. It has enchained and destroyed its people and their lives.” Occasionally the doctor’s shtick can no longer conceal the fact that he is basically a tourist: “Borley Rectory. Glamis Castle. It is incredible to find oneself experiencing it, absolutely incredible.” When deciding that, “I believe that the day after tomorrow is Saturday,” it all bodes well for his scientific report.
Previous commentators, including Joe Nazare, have shown that Jackson was “grinding a marital axe” and satirizing her own husband in her portrayal of the doctor. Yet the doctor remains equal in absurdity to his own wife – a smug, bland witch, who dotes on her “planchette” as if it was a poodle or, more pertinently, her familiar. Dr Montague drones on about the cold spots and poltergeist attacks at Borley Rectory, but when his wife cites similar “evidence” about spectral nuns – of which there were a fair few at Borley – the humbug doctor is sufficiently irritated to finally apply a bit of scientific scepticism, pointing out that “there is no case on record” of “any nun” being walled alive. Witheringly, but somewhat unknowingly, Mrs Montague later demolishes her husband with the line, “I cannot understand this scepticism in you, of all people.”
Some residual part of Dr Montague, which possibly stirs when his wife is not around, shares in the excitement of the “young people,” and they together match or reflect the extravagant freedoms of Hill House with their own endlessly creative speech. Eleanor laughs at Theodora that, “You bring more light into this room than the window,” whilst the hills overlooking the house may, “just slide down, silently and secretly, rolling over you while you try to run away.” This madcap consciousness even transforms the horror of the midnight attack into slapstick. “Someone knocked on the door with a cannon ball and then tried to get in and eat us, and started laughing its head off when we wouldn’t open the door. But nothing really out of the way.””
Although there is nothing notably European about the house, Dr Montague’s party conjure up alternative old-world personalities for themselves, brightening up history and tradition with a bit of American colour. Eleanor lives “a mad, abandoned life, draped in a shawl and going from garret to garret,” whilst Luke sums up the party as, “Destined to be inseparable friends… A courtesan, a pilgrim, a princess, and a bullfighter. Hill House has surely never seen our like.” Even the grimmest points of the old world – the public “quartering” of traitors – are rendered droll when Luke relishes the executioner’s “ticklish” chalk marks on the “belly of his victim.”
“”All I really want to do?” – and Theodora giggled – “is slide down that banister.”” She may not remotely wish to do this, and we may suspect that these are not even her real thoughts. In terms of horror, the “excited gaiety” of these flourishing suburbanites remains far more sinister than the atmosphere within Hill House. For all of the abandon in the air at Hill House, the past has crept into their thoughts, and their minds are now not quite their own.
We get repeatedly snagged on Eleanor’s troubled awareness of her own lack of moral autonomy. She is acutely self-conscious about her utterances, when they are mostly devoid of content. She is sceptical towards her own feelings, repeatedly wondering whether they are correct. Her mind remains not so much a tabula rasa as a vessel which is filled with potent fluids from an unseen hand. Unable to understand why the Bard’s “Carpe Diem” is endlessly replaying in her mind, Eleanor “told herself crossly that she must really make an effort to think of something else; she was sure that the rest of the words must be most unsuitable…” She will mentally chant them forevermore. She later finds her personality slipping away on a tangent and she is “surprised, remembering that she was always shy with strangers, awkward and timid, and yet had come in no more than half an hour to think of Theodora as close and vital…”
The party at Hill House are increasingly revealed to be bereft of autonomy, to be unknowingly following scripts that they have not themselves written. They are not enjoying any meaningful freedom, in the spirit of modern America or the post-war decades, as virtually everything which is said and done by those at Hill House is repeating the events of the past, either from Eleanor’s past or from that of the house itself. Moreover, if those rebuilding America would increasingly lose their souls in the suburbs, Hill House, that most resplendent and preposterous of suburban mansions, will provide the theatre to rehearse this modern tragedy.