Saturday, May 25, 2013

As We Have Done Before: Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House

Well,  you never know what's going to lure me back to posting.

This time around, it's to partially appease, partially excorsise an apparition that follows me in some kind of orbit, one as mysterious and elongated as Pluto's; Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House.

Let me say two things right off the bat:

One, this is a meditation on the 1959 novel, not on either of the two film versions. The first is a wonderful movie that captured the seemingly uncapturable terror of the novel. The second is a loud and messy abortion that reaffirms my belief that all successful actors in Hollywood make a deal with a crossroads demon that, in exchange for success, they must utterly humiliate themselves in a cyclone of dreck every so many years.

Two, this isn't a review in the classical sense, and thus, it's pretty much going to be one long spoiler. But honestly, The Haunting... isn't the kind of book that relies on a huge surprise or twist to make it interesting. One of the reasons I was so eager to read it in the first place was reading similar thoughts on the novel, specifically Steven King's marvelous overview in the equally marvelous Danse Macabre. You don't lose anything by "knowing the ending." Indeed, as Jackson makes clear in her quiet way, endings are never the point. They may not even be real.

All set? Let's move on. It's quite a road ahead.

First, a very brief background: Shirley Jackson is best known (and there are far worse things to be known for) for her stunning, color-of-the-sky changing short story, The Lottery, which I will not discuss any further because a) that's a post in itself and b) it does depend on not knowing the ending.
But as anyone who's read any more of any talented writer knows, the best known is just the opener.

Jackson had a life that reflected in much of her work. She grew up brilliant and plain in a family whose socialite mother had no use for the former and regarded the latter as a personal affront. Shirley's clashes, competitions and submissions to her mother arise in many of her writings, but the bad mother, in many of her subtler variations, crops up for special usage in many still corners of Hill House.

Jackson married (outside her faith) an intellectual and had four children while leading a double outsider's life at both her husband's college (where she did not fit in to the faculty wife world) and their small Vermont town (where as a writer, intellectual, and open believer in the occult, she wasn't considered altogether canny by a very insular New England community.) Many of her writings are not what people consider when they think of  "the woman who wrote The Lottery"--they are a kind of fifties cereberal Erma Bombeck, about the doings and livings of her big family. Many people tend to denigrate these works, but to me they are as sly and pointed as anything in her more macabre incarnations (I especially love her account of the morning of leaving for the hospital to give birth to her fourth child. Her husband and family are being very atypically considerate and quiet given her "condition"; this unnerves her so much that she's paging frantically through the newspaper hoping for a nice ax murderer story to get her mind off things.)

But onwards to specifics. According to legend, Jackson had become interested in writing a haunted house story when she came across a book about a group of nineteenth century ghost researchers who were earnestly trying to study and record their impressions of a haunted house. What struck her was not so much their reports but, as she put it:
" ... the story that kept coming through their dry reports was not at all the story of a haunted house, it was the story of several earnest, I believe misguided  [emphasis mine], certainly determined people, with their differing background and motivations."

Soon after, having already determined that this story was the one she wanted to tell and reading many ghost stories to prepare the way inside her head, Jackson apparently saw a house in New York that was "grotesque, evil-looking, one that made such a somber impression, that she had nightmares about it long afterwards." And after that, searching magazines and books for pictures of similar houses, she spotted another one that in its hideousness, seemed perfect to her. It was a house in California, so she wrote to her mother, who lived in the state, for help on getting information about it.

Turns out that Jackson's own great-grandfather built it.  Brrrrr.

I've gone into this introductory sketch at length because Shirley Jackson, more than many other authors, understood both what she was trying to do, and that her particular cast of mind would shape that inevitably. The Haunting of Hill House is not a memoir or poorly disguised roman a clef--it is entirely of its own world--but that particular world could not be framed, found, followed by anyone but one certain woman. A woman whose mind understood a haunted house to possess not ghosts, but absolute reality, bad angles, and misguided people, who are drawn to reenact what they believe they most long to escape.


The Haunting of Hill House starts out quietly, simply, in one of the most famous openings ever.

     "No live organism can continue for long to exsist 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 sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."

 Need a minute?


Setting aside how brilliantly this opening lays the path for what must follow, stylistically speaking it is unimpeachable. The words are quiet, soft, plain spoken as a report. There is no purple prose, thunderclouds, blood or fire to get the pulse prematurely beating. It conveys in two sentences everything you must know, cannot face, and yet will come to accept by the end of the story. And its final phrase turns the temperature of the blood, slowly and steadily, to zero.  You have been taken by the hand, and you will be walked to where you must go, at a steady pace, with no stopping.

The opening pages of the novel deal with why things happened as they did. Jackson paints, in  portraits as forgiving as they are mortal, the characters who will come to Hill House, and why.

First is the instigator of the story's moving parts, Dr. John Montague, " ...a doctor of philosphy, he had taken a degree in anthropology, feeling obscurely that in this field he might come closest to his true vocation..." Montague is a man who desires most to study and provide the first truly scientific analyisis of a haunted house, of supernatural manifestations. "He had been looking for an honestly haunted house all his life. When he heard of Hill House he had been at first doubtful, then hopeful, then indefatigable; he was not the man to let go of Hill House once he had found it."

Having found it, then, Dr. Montague needs some researchers. But since, for all his desires of making such a field "respectable" this is still pretty much an outilier of "research," he's got to go out a-looking as he may. He combs the files and records of several psychic research societies (along with the more "sensational newspapers") to come up with a list of people who have been involved at some point with some kind of abnormal event. He winnows down the list and writes an invitation to all the resultant names to come spend a summer researching and investigating  Hill House and its history.

Not altogether surprisingly, he doesn't get many takers. (How eager would you be to respond to a letter out of the blue inviting you to spend your summer with a bunch of strangers at a creepy old place in the middle of nowhere?) As Jackson points out, Montague's letters are designed to catch the eye of a very special sort of reader. In fact, by the time things are ready and Hill House is rented and waiting, only two have agreed to come.

And in the first of these two, we meet our main character, and unknowing guide,  Eleanor Vance.
Eleanor is one of the most successful characters I have ever encountered in fiction. That Jackson could summon such a complete person--one wild, whimsical , charming, shy, neurotic, and conveying a sense of inevitability that chases the comfort of the word "fiction" from your mind--is amazing. It's creepy.

Eleanor Vance is a thirty two year old woman whom life has pretty much sat on since before she was a girl. Her last eleven years have been spent taking care of her invalid mother, who apparently was not an exhilarating person, to say the very least, and is now living on sufferance with her unbearable sister, brother in law, and niece. To say she hates her life would be like saying that California sequioas tend to be a bit rangy. She is a muffled person, quite aware of her loves and hates but reduced in scale by circumstance to "mousy", "shy", "quiet."

Nell, as she's often called, is in Dr. Montague's sights because of an occurance that happened when she was twelve, her sister eighteen, and her father dead "not quite a month"-- for a period of three days, with no warning or explanation, showers of stones fell on their family's house, until the girls were removed to a friend's and things quieted down.

What's great about this backdrop is the way Jackson has her characters respond to it. Eleanor and her sister "were less unnerved by the stones than by the neighbors and sightseers who gathered daily outside the front door, and by their mother's blind, hysterical insistence that all of this was due to malicious, backbiting people on the block who had had it in for her ever since she came."

Wow. Does that tell you a lot about Eleanor's family, or what? That, plus the fact that the narrative claims that Eleanor and her sister had "quite forgotten" the story, and "each ... had supposed at the time that the other was responsible" speaks volumes about the repression and hatred that has slowly risen, like a bitter dough, in Eleanor's life and surroundings. (The fact that Montague writes to Eleanor, not her sister, is interesting too.)

The next research assistant is introduced at much briefer length but is no less indelible for all that--Theodora "that was as much name as she used"--is a colorful, beautiful, bohemian artist type that is invited by Dr. M for a much more orthodox reason then showers of stones: she's one of those people who can guess cards held up in another room at a much higher rate then the law of averages allows. She's willing to come because she's had a terrible fight with her "freind" (male or female is left unstated) with whom she shares an apartment--"Things were said on both sides which only time could eradicate"--and Theodora, who clearly goes when and where she lists, decides that a summer in a country house is as good a place to pass the time as any.

The third researcher has been pretty much foisted on Dr. Montague by his aunt, current owner of Hill House, who wants to get him safely stashed away for the summer--Luke Sanderson. According to Jackson's description he is "a liar. He was also a thief". His aunt makes it a condition that Luke come along as a kind of guardian of the property--basically, she wants him in an out of the way place where he can't make any mischief. Dr. Montague is perfectly willing--Luke is amiable and charming, and the more eyes and ears the better. Plus, having done a fair share of research and reconnisance, the good doctor "percieved in Luke a kind of strength, or catlike instinct for self-preservation, which made him almost as anxious as Mrs. Sanderson to have Luke with him in the house."  You go up against Hill House, you bring as many people with you as will agree to go.

So the cast of main characters, all of whom have varying degrees of reasons to not turn back, are heading to a summer at Hill House.

Now comes the next section of the book, and here is where we really meet and travel along with the eyes and ears through which the reader will come to know Hill House--Eleanor Vance.

Eleanor's been having quite a time just getting started. Having written to accept the invitation, she has to battle with her gross sister and brother in law about taking the car they jointly own to get there. Both of the opposing forces act quite calm and gentle and utterly dickish about Eleanor not having the car--even though they'll be gone in the mountains all summer and can't possibly use it themselves.

All Eleanor says through most of this conversation is variations on "The car is half mine. I mean to take it." This is perfectly true, but the reader is getting their first glance at Nell's thought processes here, and they are that of a child. Not childlike, but arguments and claims that have never grown up, or out, or branched into more subtle variations. She's a child in this relationship and she can only fight as a child would--stubborn, repeating the fact of her claim on the car, and expecting to be defeated.

Well, her relations may have won the argument, but Nell has, through time, place, and, it's slightly implied, by the already growing influence of Hill House, made up her mind--she just goes to the garage where the car is stored and takes it.

This is by far the most daring act of this woman's life, and the section of the novel in which she makes her bid for "freedom" is one of the most enchanting and disturbing in the work. She is enthralled by her own daring, by making a choice on her own, and she is ready and willing to see this as a magical, uncanny adventure:
"The notion of dividing her lovely journey into miles and hours was silly; she saw a passage of moments, each one new, carrying her along with them, taking her down a path of incredible novelty to a new place. The journey itself was her positive action..." [emphasis mine]

Eleanor, while telling herself that "this is her doing this", that she has taken a step, is unconciously using entirely passive language to herself--she is being carried away, swept along with no resistance. It is not the goal at the end of this trip--Hill House--that is her "positive action."  It is the journey itself, and she goes on to imagine several scenarios as she drives, seeing and conjuring many images and phrases that she will constantly refer and retreat to during the course of the book. They include a pair of stone lions outside a stately home, an "oleander square" in which a line of the poisonous flowering trees outline an utterly empty field,  a small cottage nearly hidden by its garden, and so on. Each of these sights triggers in Eleanor's mind startlingly vivid and complete fantasies of being a grand lady of a manor, an enchanted princess breaking a spell, the local conjuring woman...again, these are the dreams and pictures of a girl much younger then Nell's chronological age, sexless and retreating visions of perfect isolation. The one time she attempts to insert a handsome prince into a scenario, she backs off almost at once. 

"She laughed and turned to smile good-bye at the magic oleanders. Another day, she told them, another day I'll come back and break your spell."

Men, sex, relationships--these play no part in Eleanor's emotional life. It is turned utterly to her self, to her crushed ego and its constant murmurings, as is shown when she stops for lunch at an old country restaurant and notices a little girl in a neighboring party refusing to drink her milk. The girl's mother (the only kind mother to make an appearance in the book) explains that the little girl wants "her cup of stars" that she drinks from at home.

"Indeed yes, Eleanor thought; indeed, so do I; a cup of stars, of course."

Watching this small scene, Eleanor immediately joins herself in  mental alliance not to the grown woman but to the child:

"Don't do it, Eleanor told the little girl; insist on your cup of stars; once they have you trapped 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."

While Eleanor may see herself as joining, however briefly, with another, this mental monologue is utterly self-directed. It focuses on her wants, both desiring a cup of stars of her own and what she wants the little girl to do. It's the cast in which Eleanor views the world, pretty much, and views her place in it. As self-depreciating as she makes herself out to be, that self is not demure or quiet--it wants things, lots of things, and has worked out various subtle ways to make itself known--even if it has to throw stones.

Eleanor, after a brief and rebellious stop at the ugly, insular town of Hillsdale for coffee, makes her way up the terribly kept road into the hills that contain Hill House, although it is not visible to her. When she finally makes it to the gate, which is securely padlocked, she still can't see it, and has to out and out fight with Dudley the caretaker to get him to open up: "Hill House, she thought, you're as hard to get into as heaven."
Having finally gotten through Dudley and the gate she goes up a drive nearly smothered by trees until she finally sees Hill House, and her reaction is blunt: "She shivered and thought, the words coming freely to her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseased, get away from here at once."

This is pretty much the only time Eleanor has an honest reaction, one not informed by her neruoses. Hill House is not, because it cannot be, subtle or disarming about what it is--an evil place, "...a house arrogant and hating, never off guard, can only be evil... It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed."

Jackson is telling us a lot here, not the least of which that Hill House, for all its misdirections, is not a liar. It does not mislead or tell tales or fabricate. It is, in actuality, a physical representation of nondreaming "absolute reality"--something humans react to as vile and diseased. Absolute reality, according to Jackson, is of necessity, evil; it does things to people and their cherished illusions, works on their weaknesses, not out of any personal spite but because of its sheer nature.

Eleanor, at the first sight of Hill House, is told by her mind, by the non-neurotic part of herself, to get away from here at once. But, she doesn't do it. "But this is what I came so far to find, she told herself; I can't go back. Besides, he would laugh at me if I tried to get back out through that gate."

Eleanor is not a prisoner in any physical sense--she could theoretically leave. But the reader understands at once why she does not--she has, after her blissful journey, no way to retrace her steps back to what she was before; and she is afraid of the jeering and unpleasant Dudley. Those two small bumps block any possibility of retreat more thoroughly then any army.

Eleanor marches herself up the veranda steps to the front door, almost delighting in the noise she makes that seems to "outrage" the silence surrounding the house until the door is opened by Mrs. Dudley, wife of the caretaker and as throughly unpleasant as he is. They are the only people from the village who will come near the house and they take a perverse pride in it--the house itself is spotless and Mrs. Dudley will not suffer one thing to be moved out of place. Mrs. Dudley is almost an automaton--she recites the following speech, word for word, to both Eleanor and Theo  (and later Dr. Montague and Luke) at their respective arrivals:

"I set dinner on the diningroom sideboard at six sharp. You can serve yourselves. I clear up in the morning. I have breakfast ready for you at nine. That's the way I agreed to do. I can't keep the rooms up the way you'd like, but there's no one else you can get that would help me. I don't wait on people. What I agreed to, doesn't mean I wait on people."

Um, okay. But that's not all. Mrs. Dudley wants Eleanor and everybody else to understand her parameters, just so there's no confusion:

" I don't stay after I set out dinner. Not after it begins to get dark. I leave before dark comes. We live over in the town, six miles away. So there won't be anyone around if you need help. We couldn't even hear you, in the night. No one could. No one lives any nearer then the town. No one else will come any further than that. In the night. In the dark."

Quite a warm greeting, wouldn't you say? Jackson, as is her style, leaves it totally to the reader to decide whether the Dudleys have been warped by their long contact with the house, if they were already the kind of people who wanted, in some way, to be there, or a combination of the two.

(Also note: even the Dudleys, who have been long term caretakers through many prospective owners and tenants, who take pride in their prolonged relationship with Hill House, will not stay there after dark.)

And now Eleanor, left in her room, gets her first real glimpse of the construction of Hill House, and how it hurts the human mind:

"It had an unbelievably faulty design which left it chillingy wrong in all its demensions, so that the walls always seemed in one direction a fraction longer than the eye could endure, and in another direction a fraction less then the barest tolerable length; this is where they want me to sleep, Eleanor thought incredulously..."

This is gone into later by Dr. Montague in more depth later in the novel, but it is one of the most important things about Hill House--it was built, deliberately, with bad geometry. There is no truly straight line within it: every stair, doorway, ceiling is at a slight angle, almost too small to detect, but not quite. (This ensures, among other things, that doors always close, unless they are physically propped open.) The geometry and demensions of the house means that any person inside it is constantly, on a subconcious level, trying to correct for the angularity that is throwing them off.  And these efforts leave them open to...influences--whether it is the influence of their own fears and desires or the house itself is, of course, left undetermined.

The combination of  "bad" demensions and the assertion that the house exists, "not sane", in conditions of  "absolute reality" is fascinating. While Jackson is too subtle to cheapen Hill House with witches or spells, it is clear that its constructor wanted the house this precise way. Where is the crossroads between angles that cannot exist in the human mind's perception of reality and "absolute" reality? Why was that crossroads so important to its builder? And how has Hill House, which scares the primitive mind of everyone who sees it into fits, managed to survive, in perfect physical shape? It isn't decaying or rotten or abandoned, but perfectly maintained in an utter silence that is nearly monastic. Something about this house terrifies humans, but it also compels them to continue its existence. Dr Montague, in his lecture to them about the house, says "I need not remind you, I think, that the concept of certain houses as unclean or forbidden--perhaps sacred--is as old as the mind of man." His theory of  "haunted" houses is that the places are not so much filled with literal ghosts, but that they are "leperous. Sick. Any of the popular eupehmisms for insanity; a deranged house is a pretty conceit." (The Dudleys, as the house's attendants, are never shown in any relationships with any of the townspeople--their existences are bound to serve Hill House.)

Eleanor is unpacking, telling herself to quit imagining things and trying not to utterly flip out and leave when Theo, the sparkling, personable, marvelous second "researcher", arrives, jolting Nell out of her customary blend of fear and self-pity. Theo personifies the word "charming" and it is significant that her ability is one of  "reading"-- cards and emotions, and thus her personality has shaped itself into a chameleon, shifting and blending and always presenting whoever she's talking to with a special sparkle; while Eleanor's is that of a poltergeist--her abilities (completely unacknowledged by her) push out, channeling all the desires, rages, and other "bad thoughts" of her subconcious.

Eleanor and Theo, out of relief of not being alone in Hill House as much as anything else, bond fast, in a series of  "witty" conversations in which each is trying to entertain and impress the other in order to have an ally in this place. They go outside at Theo's instigation (Eleanor is already uneasily insisting that they can't go too far from the house) and have an extraordinary dialogue in which Eleanor makes up, out of whole cloth, a whole series of family relations (it's not the last time she will conjure a fantasy life out of thin air for her companions) until they manage to scare themselves back to the house and meet Dr. Montague and Luke.

Now that everyone has arrived, there's nothing to do but get started.

After a round of introductions (during which the company spontaneously keeps themselves at a slight distance from each other through a round of made up personas for their "former" lives), the characters' first experience with the extreme difficulty in finding one's way through the house, dinner, and a demand from Luke, Eleanor and Theo to know the history of Hill House, and what, exactly, they are supposed to be doing, Jackson settles the quartet into an inner room and outlines the history of the house, through Dr. Montague's lecture on the subject.

In brief, the house was built by a Hugh Crain, as a "showpeice" home where he hoped to raise a family dynasty. His first wife and  mother of his daughters, unfortunantely (or not) never laid eyes on it--she died in a carriage accident moments before she would have seen it for the first time.

The two daughters grew up for a time in Hill House (the idea of which horrifies Theo) until the death of Hugh's second (mysterious fall) and third wives (became ill and died in Europe while trying to recover.) After that they were sent to a relative and spend their adult lives battling over ownership of Hill House. While the others find it hard to believe anybody would actually want to own this place, the two sisters never dropped it, with the elder eventually "winning" and moving in. After her death, the village girl she had hired as a companion claimed it, setting off a truly titanic battle with the still enraged younger sister.

Dr. Montague asserts that the poor girl was "hated to death"--between the rage of the younger sister, the snubbing of her former freinds in Hillsdale, and, it's implied, the House's mechanations, the woman promptly hung herself, thus passing Hill House on to her cousins, who stayed a few days and fled, and eventually to Luke at some future date. Hill House, with the exception of a renter here and there, has had itself pretty much to itself ever since.

This background is meant to show that while Hill House is, at first glance, repulsive, it clearly sets down roots in certain types of minds. The two girls, growing up in the house--what did they see, hear, start to want? Why did the companion so desperately cling to the house and her claim on it? And yet, even those who desired to stay in Hill House were never easy within it--the companion, during the court battle, insisted that the younger sister snuck in at night and "stole things", while the younger sister, during her entire lifetime of fighting to get back into Hill House, insisted, without variation, that she would never enter the house at night. Hill House makes itself known, if not loved.

Montague also mentions that during the course of his researches, he interviewed several previous tenants of Hill House, all of whom buggered right off  a few days or weeks after moving in. He notes that while they all gave very sound, rational reasons for leaving at the outset of the conversations--dampness, too far out in the country--they all ended by saying the house should be burned to the ground and warning him never to set foot in  the place. While no one would outright admit why they left, they clearly were mentally and emotionally incapable of staying, and having left, are most reluctant to discuss their experiences.

Jackson is pointing out that  Hill House's "charms" affect a part of the mind that cannot be dealt with by said mind's owner--that a typical person who has had contact with it are a) very unwilling to discuss the matter at all, but if forced, they will b) try to come up with a "rational" reason for leaving, one that reflects the mind's egoistic reasonings rather than its id.

And c)--this construction does not last--the id bursts forth with the frantic news that Hill House must be destroyed if anyone can be found to resist it long enough to do so. Hill House has survived at least 95% because nobody will stick around long enough to do any damage. And that other 5%?  Well...

After this cheery lecture, everyone goes to bed and surprisingly enough, has a good night's sleep. The fact that Hill House can be so repelling and yet contain so much comfort (remarked on by several characters, especially Eleanor) in physical terms--soft beds, good food, luxurious appointments--can be seen as yet another of a series of clashes between ego and id. There is no physical reason to leave Hill House; it's nicer then a lot of hotels, and Mrs. Dudley, whatever her personality shortcomings, is a superlative cook. A person can't come up with a reason to bolt, so they stay. And stay, until their id overrides the personality's chatterings, the concious mind's hold on reality, with its own insistences on what reality has been forced to mean here. Then the person either takes off, or...

...The first full day in Hill House starts off fine. Eleanor and Theo, ready to take on the day, are off to find their breakfast--but that's easier said then done. Hill House, amidst all its other accoutraments, is nearly impossible to navigate. Nothing is where you think it is, and it's all too easy to get utterly turned around. It takes the two women a good ten minutes and some yelling to locate the dining room. Dr. Montague tells them he had purposely left the doors open for them, but every one of them closed--on its own. Luke tells them that's how they knew they were coming; watching the doors swing shut.

The group spends the day mapping the house and trying to get acclimated. They go all over--Eleanor cannot go into the library, which she claims smells of mold, although none of the others sense it--and ends with the triumphant discovery of a "cold spot" in the doorway of the nursery. (The nursery is the only room in the place with an air of neglect. Eleanor speculates that even Mrs. Dudley doesn't go through that cold more often then absolutely necessary.)

After more debates and sherry, the group (all feeling that something is going to happen soon) retires for the night. And something does happen. Hill House, after a courteous waiting period, begins to make itself felt.

This is the first of Jackson's "set pieces", and it is recorded through Eleanor's eyes. She is woken by a voice calling her name and is fumbling out of bed, still half asleep, muttering "Coming, mother, coming" before she remembers her surrounding. She makes her way to Theodora's room, and they both begin to hear, and feel: a terrible cold, and a knocking, away down the hall.

Jackson builds this scene superbly: a knocking, the cold, the sound of something going up and down that hallway, the knocking is louder, an iron bar crashing against the doors, the girls hear the doctor and Luke outside in the garden, colder, colder, and then they are found, and the sound of little fingers, patting, patting around their door, searching for a way in...and then crashing, banging, so that nothing could seem to stand up to such an onslaught, and then a tiny little laugh.

And then it's over.

The group gathers, trying to focus and acting quite debonair about thier experiences. Comparing notes, Nell and Theo tell about their ordeal while the doctor and Luke describe hearing what sounded like a dog in the hallway, and chasing it through the garden. Neither group heard what the others experienced. And as Dr. Montague points out, it seems the intent was to seperate them.

These frightful doings, while seemingly designed to drive an average party out the doors, are actually a test. Eleanor, for one, has passed with flying colors. The next day, she wakes with a feeling of wild happiness, and recites the chant that has been in her mind since her car journey two days ago: Journeys end in lovers meeting. It's a snatch of an old song she continually sings to herself, and this particular phrase has some special meaning for her, even if she doesn't know what it is. As Theo says, this curious life agrees with you.

But just when everything seems the jolliest, Luke makes a discovery.

Out in the hallway, there is a string of writing, in straggling chalk:


Eleanor, understandably, freaks out. She doesn't know why her name is up there, what does it mean, did one of you do it...until Theo deliberately accuses her of writing it herself. The scene plays out with Nell realizing that the others are making her mad deliberately so she won't get hysterical, and that Theo, under this guise, is genuinely insulting her, accusing her of trying to steal the spotlight.

(Eleanor watches this within herself, noting how the others react, playing along --"now I am back in the fold"--and continuing her inner monologue.)

Things seem to calm down, but it's Theo's turn. Going to her room, she finds her entire wardrobe ruined with a thick red substance that seems to be blood. She pretty much accuses Eleanor of doing it, and while the group is trying to get her out of the room, they see more writing, over Theo's bed:



This is where Eleanor really begins to split with the rest of the party. She continues, very deliberately, to join in their talk and banter, while her inner thoughts turn ever darker--and truer. That night, she calmly ponders how much she would like to hit Theo with a stick, to batter her with rocks, as she plays along with the rest of them in discussions and deciding how to carry on their "research". She is convinced the others have turned against her, that they regard her as an outsider, and the more she tries to tell them of her own feelings the deeper that conviction grows.

And it case it didn't take, the house takes care to remind her.

In one of the most famous passages of the novel, that night has Eleanor lying awake in the utter darkness, holding Theodora's hand as the noises go up and down, up and down. It's a murmur, a hissing babble, a laugh... and then a child crying.

Eleanor can't take it. Clenching Theo's hand she finally manages to scream "STOP IT" and the lights are back on, and Theo, all the way across the room, is awake and asking what's wrong--so whose hand was was Nell holding?

And she still doesn't leave.

Eleanor has now been singled out three times by the house and the result is a shift in how she is presented in the book--her thought processes have become a constant tally of how the others act towards her and and what they are covering up by those actions. She sits with Luke the next day and observes the conversation between them, realizing with irritation that while it could be construed as flirtatious, she can see right through his act:

"He is altogether selfish, she thought with some surprise, the only man I have ever sat and talked to alone, and I am impatient; he is simply not very interesting."  Eleanor, after a lifetime of being keyed to the minutia  of her mother's demands and personality, is impossible to fool with platitudes or smiles.

That night, after the discovery of a book Luke Crain wrote for his elder daughter (that underlines the old man's dire possessiveness of said daughters in a way that points to the path of sexual abuse without saying the exact words...) Nell and Theo are again singled out. Obstensibly quarreling over Eleanor's apparent capture of Luke's interests, the two end up walking outside, in the dark garden. Side by side, bitter and angry, they move through the dark, both aware of the other desperately wanting to say something, but not daring:
"Nothing irrevocable had yet been spoken, but there was only the barest margin of safety left them; each of them moving delicately along the outskirts of an open question, and once spoken, such a question-- as "Do you love me?"--could never be answered or forgotten."

On and on they go, the margin narrowing, until the two women are within a hairs breath of rebonding, of presenting a united front, and the the house strikes:

"On either side of them the trees, silent, relinquished the dark color they had held, paled, grew transparent and stood white and ghastly against the black sky. The grass was colorless, the path white and black; there was nothing else."

Trapped in a ghastly negative of the world, the two women keep striding forward, forward, out of mad fear of any other action, until the house leads them to a bright, gaudy, Technicolor image of a garden and a family picnic. But just as they stumble upon this vision, Theodora screams.

"Don't look back," she cried in a voice high with fear. "don't look back--don't look--run!"

In a blind panic they fight their way back to Hill House and Luke and Dr. Montague, who have been frantic with worry and looking for them for hours. The two women, hysterical, clutch each other in terror, looking up at Luke and the doctor, and "felt the room rock madly, and time as she had always known time, stop."

And they still don't leave.

At this point the four protagonists, all driven in circles by the house's mechanations, cannot seem to find their way back to the outside world. They go around and around Hill House, each seeming to wait for a resolution or explanation. Although the novel focuses on Eleanor's experiences and the way her mind is shaping itself, the rest of the characters are also held prisoner, by the idea that there must be some kind of reason, or explanation, for what is going on. Each attack and manifestation seems so, if not personal, then well tailored, that it feels that the house in not pushing them out but enticing them to learn the reasons behind the attacks, the way a bullying victim cannot let go of trying to find the reason behind their tormentor's actions. Clearly something is going to be needed to break this stasis.

Well, something does. Dr. Montague's wife, along with some kind of friend or companion of hers named Arthur, has arrived.

Mrs. Montague is the walking, talking personification of the Society Lady Dabbling In Spiritualism. She sweeps in, bag and baggage, with her "friend" Arthur Parker (there to "do the driving") her planchette, and her fashionable views of perfect love and understanding. She wants to be set up in the most haunted room and get right to her automatic writing, pausing only to eat dinner and proclaim she doesn't mind this cooking at all, scold and needle her husband for his slipshod methods, and instruct Arthur on his patrolling duties.

Nell, Theo, and Luke are struck practically dumb at the sight of this human hurricane, and so is the reader. It is a very deliberate introduction on Jackson's part, to highlight several aspects of the story. Mrs. Montague represents the careless and self serving way spiritual life is regarded in middle class society. She regards Hill House as a cliche, filled with hidden treasure and the shades of walled-up nuns (her husband's continually steamrollered insistences that a) there is no evidence of nuns ever being walled up alive and b) of all the things that may walk in Hill House, a nun is way down the list) make not the tiniest dent in her self-congratulatory tide of blather. For Mrs. Montague, spirituality is a mirror that she uses to reflect the most flattering aspects of her own ego. As such, she is in direct clash with Hill House, who will reflect its inhabitants' ids, their true dark animal rages.

Mrs. Montague is also there to show the path back to the "real" world--that is, a world of dreams, non-absolute reality, relativity, and what most humans call "sanity." That she is presented in such garish, clownlike colors is to highlight that once a certain kind of mind is in Hill House, it cannot accept such a path; that is to say, Eleanor can barely relate to Mrs. M being there at all. She sees her almost as a ghost, a shade that has no place in the starkness of what Hill House is revealing to her. Theo and Luke are also less then pleased to see this outsider ("I swear that old biddy's going to blow this house wide open with that perfect love business; if I ever saw a place that had no use for perfect love it's Hill House", says Theodora to Nell), but they have no trouble understanding who and what she is.

As for Hill House itself, it seems amused enough with Mrs. Montague and her planchette at first--amused enough to send another, familiar message through her automatic writing:

" 'Off we go,' said Arthur brightly, and leaned over Mrs. Montague's shoulder. 'Now--let me see--start right here?'
'With "who are you?" "
'Righto. Who are you?'
' Nell', Mrs. Montague read in her sharp voice, and Eleanor and Theodora and Luke and the doctor turned, listening."

Planchette repeats "Eleanor Nellie Nell Nell" a few times, just for underlining purposes, and then the familiar request, or command, "Home. Want to be home. Waiting. Home."

And when Mrs. M and Arthur ask why, it replies "Mother." "Lost lost lost lost", "Mother", "Child", "Home".

Well, familiarity doesn't breed comfort for the ghost hunters, and while the others are snapping in annoyance or quipping to each other, Nell notes "...They are all carefully avoiding looking at me...I have been singled out again, and they are kind enough to pretend it is nothing..."

Time for bed! After getting Mrs. Montague regally settled in the nursery so she continue her communing, and Arthur preparing to "patrol", the women go their room and men to the doctor's; only for a few minutes, however. They are all quite aware that Hill House isn't going to stand Mrs. M's shenanigans for long and they want to be together when it happens. And happen it does.

The usual suspects of cold, pounding, laughter and patting at the doors occurs, for the first time when all the ghost hunters are in one room, and this highlights their terror rather then dissipates it--they all try to keep up a good front, even joking with each other and trying to ignore the fact that they do not dare open the door to warn or rescue the newcomers. They all get their perspectives twisted up and down until they can barely speak to each other ("Hill House went dancing", is Theodora's grim assessment the next morning) and Eleanor, having reached her limit, privately gives in:

"...No; it is over for me. It is too much, she thought, I will relinquish my possession of this self of mine, abdicate, give over willingly what I never wanted at all; whatever it wants of me it can have."

They all come to the next day seemingly intact, with Dr. Montague reporting that as is the house's mischievous wont, his wife and Arthur experienced nothing at all and are sleeping like babies, their sense of reality quite intact.(All Mrs. M is complaining about--at length--is the stuffiness of the nursery.)  Hill House hasn't bothered with them, hasn't even noticed them. Hill House has who it wants.

Despite her inner acquiescence, Eleanor continues to try to bind herself to something outside Hill House. She announces to Theo that she's planning to leave with her after their adventure is over, she'll get a job, she won't be in the way... despite Theo's gentle but firm protests against this lunatic idea, until she finally says, exasperated, "I don't understand, do you always go where you're not wanted?"

And Eleanor's smiling reply? "I've never been wanted anywhere."

The novel at this stage has reached the endgame, where Eleanor's division from the rest of the group becomes stark and solidified. Her actions get more bizarre, and the others tease her, Luke by threatening to damage Hill House when he inherits it. The alliance of Theo and Luke against Nell is clear by the end of the day, when Eleanor focuses every conversation on herself (suddenly announcing she may have caused her mother's death by ignoring the knocking on her wall that last fateful night) and continually asking if the two of them are talking about her whenever she sees them together. They all go out for a walk and the two deliberately lag behind, leaving Eleanor to experience another embrace by Hill House on her own, leaving her feeling that the house is on her side, is, indeed, the only one on her side.

After another evening of teasing, shifting alliances and spite, during which Eleanor finally hears the last of the child's song that has haunted her throughout the novel:

"Go walking through the valley,
Go walking through the valley,
Go walking through the valley,
As we have done before...

Go in and out the windows,
Go in and out the windows,
Go in and out the windows,
As we have done before...

Go forth and face your lover,
Go forth and face your lover,
Go forth and face your lover,
As we have done before...

None of them heard it, she thought with joy; nobody heard it but me."

...The stage is set for Eleanor's final confrontation with the others and the house, and to choose her side.

The finale is set in the library--Eleanor is lured, or lures herself, out of bed, dancing up and down the halls, pounding on the others' doors, and on a merry chase through the confusion of rooms until she ends up not only in the library, but climbing the half-rotted circular staircase up the tower. She's trying to get out onto the roof when the others find her and with great difficulty manage to walk her back down the steps with Luke coaxing her the whole way.

That tears it for the rest of the group--Eleanor must leave Hill House the very next day. It is far too dangerous for her, and the rest of them, to remain in its "sisterly embrace", and they tell her so. Nell, however, has quite the opposite idea.

"I haven't any apartment," she said to Theodora. "I made it up. I sleep on a cot at my sister's, in the baby's room. I haven't any home, no place at all. And I can't go back to my sister's because I stole her car." She laughed, hearing her own words, so inadequate and utterly sad..."

And it is utterly sad, not only the circumstances that Nell describes, but the fact that she sought Hill House out from the beginning, blind, knowing she must find her place, and this, Hill House, is it. Being told her sister has been informed she is on her way back means nothing to her; "Walled up alive." Eleanor began to laugh again at their stone faces. "Walled up alive," she said again. "I want to stay here."

But it's five against one, and Nell is installed in her car by the others, still protesting she wants to stay, as the doctor repeats over and over that he was wrong to bring any of them there. After a prolonged series of goodbyes, Nell seemingly obediently starts her car and begins driving away. But her mind, her closed mind, is still quite clear on what it wants, what is going to happen.

"They will watch me down the drive as far as they can see, she thought...Journeys end in lovers meeting. But I won't go, she thought, and laughed at herself. Hill House is not as easy as they are; just by telling me to go away they can't make me leave, not if Hill House means me to stay..."

Down and around, down the driveway, and there is the big tree, Eleanor's final goal.

" I am really doing it, I am doing this all by myself, now, at last; this is me, I am really really really doing it by myself."

But that is the last of Hill House's tricks, the last reflection from a self serving, self twisted id, which can only see itself and itself and itself, over and over, and mistakes that view for the world.

" In the unending, crashing second before the car hurled into the tree she thought clearly, Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Why don't they stop me?"

This sentence underlines, with great and quiet gravity, the evil nature, the "contained ill will", that is Hill House. Eleanor's final thought, as Stephen King points out in Danse Macabre, is not of the house, but of herself. Hill House's power is to trap people inside their own heads, wandering there as if trying to find a room inside a place with carefully designed bad geometry. Eleanor, seeking herself, has been bound to that self in a knot that cannot be undone, a subtle knot tied by a house that is no fit company for a human soul. There is no solace in this house's embrace, no matter how sisterly it may appear to a person alone, adrift, and thinking it has found a lover at the end of its journey. Jackson makes that clear in her last paragraph, a perfect, self contained loop.

"...Hill House, not sane, stood against the hills, holding darkness within; it has stood so for eighty years. Within, its 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."

The house may have trapped Eleanor, but she is not being sheltered within it. Hill House needs no company. The silence is steady, all that is held within is darkness, and it walks alone.

The Haunting of Hill House is a novel of meditation and repetition, of the false idea that focusing on the self can lead to freedom of that self.  Eleanor Vance, a young woman who is all too familiar, with her kind smile and inner worlds, is a guide whose hand will keep the reader's in a seemingly generous grasp, but it is a grasp that is not at all easy to pull loose from. The reader may finish the book and place it on the shelf, but will stay aware, always, in the part of their mind that has glimpsed that bad geometry, that Hill House, not sane, continuing upright, with the silence laying steadily against its wood and stone, is waiting there. The book may put down, but the rooms within it are waiting, with a sisterly embrace.

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