“joyful loneliness”: The Haunting of Hill House

51vi+Zx7NdL“Journeys end in lovers meeting,” Eleanor keeps repeating throughout Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959), which Stephen King rightly called “as a nearly perfect a haunted-house tale as I have ever read” (286), and along with Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (which we have also read in this course), one of the “great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years” (270).

It is always strange to me that Jackson’s horror novels are not more widely read. Students in my courses usually recall reading Jackson’s highly canonized short story, “The Lottery,” in high school––rightly considered a masterpiece of American letters––but have not heard of her other novels and memoirs such as The Sundial (1958), We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), and Life Among the Savages (1953).

Jackson is a writer’s writer, revered by authors such as Victor LaValle, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jonathan Lethem, yet her influence in the American literary canon highlights her absence within it. Interestingly, Netflix is adapting Hill House into a 2018 series, which they are calling a “modern interpretation” of Jackson’s 1959 classic. Hopefully, they will do this novel justice and will reintroduce audiences to her work.

Much like “The Lottery,” Hill House seduces readers into a horrific scene of communal torture that reflect the time’s zeitgeist. In order to demonstrate how the novel accomplishes this, we spent some time close reading the opening of the novel as class. Throughout this semester I am reminding students that all texts teach us how to read them and, as such, we should pay attention to what I am calling in this course the “grammar of horror.” Hill House opens (and closes) as follows:

No living 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 the 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.

What does it mean for a narrator to introduce us to a novel’s plot through negation (“no living organism”)? A mechanism of disorientation, “no living” is highlighted further down the paragraph by its description of Hill House as “not sane”—a pronouncement that, unlike calling the house “insane,” underscores its strangeness and danger by calling attention to its opposite. Moreover, the house’s “not saneness” stands in deep opposition to Jackson’s impeccable use of adverbs—“neatly,” “sensibly,” “steadily”—that call into question the paradox of a house that appears to be in-order yet holds “darkness within.” The use of semicolons here (three in this short paragraph), also creates a breathless and claustrophobic sense in its reading, while also holding the sentences tightly together through the semicolon. In fact, students called attention to the use of the semicolon by other authors such as Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, remarking how their work also implements the semicolon as a continuation of ideas that bleed into each other. Lastly, the comma in “walked there, walked alone,” while not grammatically necessary creates a last breath in the paragraph that forewarns readers of what they will encounter if indeed they are brave enough to open the doors to Hill House. Indeed, the comma highlights the isolation of “whatever walks there” while also demanding we recognized the presence of the haunting. (On of my students beautifully continued our investigation of the grammar of haunting in his own blog post, “The Grammar of Monstrosity,” examining how syntax and grammar enact the text’s slow unraveling even while the characters attempt to condense the house into a manageable whole).

Hill House continues with the grammar of haunting consistently throughout. As Eleanor slowly learns to verbalize an individual identity—outside her role as daughter, sister, and caretaker—she also becomes enmeshed with the house. After one of the house’s manifestation of haunting, for example, Eleanor wakes content, “looking at herself in the mirror” (100) and a sense of euphoria stating, “I am here. I am here” (104). Yet, Eleanor’s sense of herself as an “I” is troubled and troubling. Thrilled by the possibility of freedom outside of her mother and sister’s homes and the fledgling relationships with Theo (and secondarily, Luke) Hill House seems to promise, Eleanor is undercut (undercuts herself?) by the house’s desire to consume her (“Help Eleanor Come Home”) and her wish to remain in the house, perhaps to “walk alone.”

Our class concluded our examination of Hill House by asking, if “journeys end in lovers meeting,” who is the lover Eleanor came to meet? As the haunting manifests itself more and more, Eleanor appears to be looking for her mother, calling “Mother” “Mother?” throughout the house and partakes, much like the governess in Turn of the Screw, in haunting herself (169). Indeed, Eleanor begins calling the house a “we” (170) and demonstrates her inability to perform as an individual “I.” We discussed the possibility that Eleanor’s lover was the house itself, or in a strange incestuous desire to return to the mother (a Freudian reading if I’ve ever seen one!), the house (domestic, maternal) is emblematic this desire, failed and pathological as it might be. I would content, however, that the lover Eleanor was searching for was actually herself. Her repeated return to notions of individual personality traits (“I have a red sweater”), fantasies of escape, and homecoming (“I am home,” 171) reveal Eleanor’s desire to become herself and, after years of serving others (her mother), claims ownership of her body and future. I would also argue that her suicide (“I am really doing it,” 181) is, in effect, a manifestation of the ultimate act of individuality and desire for the self.

Jackson’s novel has been adapted various times into feature films, most successfully as The Haunting (1963):

 

and unsuccessfully in 1999 with actors such as Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Luke Wilson:

 

References:

Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House.

King, Stephen. Dense Macabre. Gallery Books, 2010.

LaValle, Victor. “Prepare to Become the Last of the Human Race.” Slate, March 2014.

Lethem, Jonathan. “Monstrous Acts and Little Murders.” Salon, January 1997

Oates, Joyce Carol. “Shirley Jackson in Love & Death.” The New York Review of Books, October 2016.

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