Despite my disbelief in all things ghostly being absolute, I do occasionally like a bit of a ghost story.
‘The Haunting of Hill House’ owes much to the traditions of writers like M R James. An academic embarking upon an investigation, Dr Montague is essentially a ghost hunter. Around him he gathers a small group of people who he hopes will help unsettle whatever spirits may exist in Hill House. The group consist of: Eleanor Vance, who as a child experienced a peculiar event possibly brought about by poltergeist, Luke; a liar, a thief and the future inheritor of the estate, and Theodora who had come to the academic’s attention by her ability to correctly guess a sequence of cards. The Haunting of Hill House differs from M R James in that it is more of a psychological ghost story – in the slow unravelling of Eleanor’s mind it is in fact more like Henry James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’.
“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.”
Hill House is large house that appears comfortable – but it isn’t – built on odd angles the rooms have a peculiar feeling, its very comfort oppressive and uncomfortable. The rather odd housekeeper Mrs Dudley sticks rigidly to her routine, preparing dinner to keep warm, so she can leave the house for the village six miles away, making sure she leaves Hill House before dark, clearing away the dinner things the next morning. The group settle in ready to experience all the strange manifestations of a haunted house, their first night is quiet, they all sleep well. However the next morning they find the house itself is confusing and find it difficult to negotiate their way to the dining room. The house appears to listen to them, and soon strange events and unearthly noises punctuate the nights the group spend at Hill House. After several days at Hill House, Dr Montague’s domineering wife and her pompous friend Arthur arrive – with a Ouija like plancette to communicate with the spirits. Mrs Montague refuses to be unnerved by spirits and peculiar goings on, calls Luke a coward, and shows deep disapproval for everything her husband appears to have not so far achieved.
“Don’t do it, Eleanor told the little girl; insist on your cup of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again; don’t do it; and the little girl glanced at her, and smiled a little subtle, dimpling, wholly comprehending smile, and shook her head stubbornly at the glass. Brave girl, Eleanor thought; wise, brave girl.”
Eleanor is the most fascinating of the characters gathered together at Hill House, she is the one we get to know most well, a damaged fragile woman who sometimes appears more like a young girl in her naivety and inexperience of the world. Having fled an unhappy home life – living with a sister she hates, following the death of their mother who Eleanor had nursed for eleven years, Eleanor weaves fantasies out of her unhappiness. She steals the car she and her sister share to get to Hill House, feeling free for the first time. The talismans of Eleanor’s fantasies become: gold rimmed dishes, a white cat and a cup of stars, emblems of her future perfect life.
“I could live there all alone, she thought, slowing the car to look down the winding garden path to the small blue front door with, perfectly, a white cat on the step. No one would ever find me there, either, behind all those roses, and just to make sure I would plant oleanders by the road. I will light a fire in the cool evenings and toast apples at my own hearth. I will raise white cats and sew white curtains for the windows and sometimes come out of my door to go to the store to buy cinnamon and tea and thread. People will come to me to have their fortunes told, and I will brew love potions for sad maidens; I will have a robin…”
Even Theodora becomes a part of the fantasy – when Eleanor decides they should share Theodora’s flat. Coming to Hill House, Eleanor is the first of the group to arrive; she feels immediately the discomfort and peculiarity of Hill House, her brief alarming loneliness relieved by the arrival of Theodora. Theodora is a wonderfully ambiguous character, she’s a bright light-hearted young woman, and she talks of an apartment that she shares with ‘a friend’ whose gender is never revealed. Although Eleanor seems to have a brief crush on Luke during her stay at Hill House, she becomes more drawn to Theodora, whose life Eleanor envies. When the two young women first meet they are like young girls meeting at school and deciding to become friends, with silly chatter and the planning of picnics. This early friendship soon runs into trouble with Theodora taunting Eleanor, and Eleanor feeling isolated from the group – the beginning of her madness – whether her disturbance is caused by Hill House or was already there is what makes the ending of this novel so interesting.
This is an excellent chilling read – although I didn’t find it particularly frightening, though I think that is due to my absolute disbelief in ghosts – although saying that I would be disinclined to sleep in what is reported to be a haunted house, I’m not sure why? My imagination maybe? Shirley Jackson’s writing is really excellent, many of her sentences just perfect. This was the first of her novels I have read and I will certainly seek out more. My reading was enhanced by the excellent introduction to the penguin classic edition by Laura Miller, which of course I read after I had finished the novel.