Haunting Anniversary: A Half-Century of Hill House
By Joe Nazare
In the oft-cited opening paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson writes: “Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it has stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more” (1). The enigmatic novel itself (first published by The Viking Press in October 1959) has now stood for fifty years, holding darkness within seemingly for the duration of its existence. This golden anniversary thus marks an appropriate time to shine new light on the book, to reinvestigate Hill House and to consider the half-century legacy of Jackson’s monumental work of dark fantasy.
Regrettably, the ivy of literary criticism attached to Hill House has tended to obscure its finer features. Biographers, scholars, and pop-culture commentators alike have proven dubious guides, telling tales riddled with factual error and taking interpretive leaps that a careful reader hesitates to follow. The first step, then, to pushing toward a clearer understanding and interpretation of the novel involves hacking through such accrued verbiage.
Judy Oppenheimer’s hefty biography Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson has surprisingly little to say about The Haunting of Hill House, and the scant analysis it does offer is marred by inaccuracy. Discussing Eleanor Vance’s climactic smashing of her car “into a wall” (actually, it was a tree), Oppenheimer asserts that the protagonist kills herself “triumphantly. For it is not a defeat, far from it–in the moment she makes her decision to merge with the [house’s] dark powers, Eleanor is more blazingly alive than she has ever been in her life” (227). Grossly misreading the novel’s ending, Oppenheimer ignores the dismay Eleanor expresses when facing fatality: “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?” (Jackson 182). Oppenheimer concludes her chapter soon thereafter with the punning assertion that Jackson’s “triumph was as total, and as smashing, as Elinor’s [sic],” and the glaring typo here does nothing to inspire trust in the biographer’s attentive reading of the novel.
In Shirley Jackson’s American Gothic, scholar Darryl Hattenhauer devotes an entire chapter to Hill House, but his study proves no more reliable than Oppenheimer’s. Hattenhauer (169) states that the line “Fear and guilt are sisters” (Jackson 127) is an admonition inscribed by Hill House’s founding father Hugh Crane in his daughter’s primer, whereas the line is a bit of third-person narration that appears in the chapter section subsequent to the main characters’ perusal of said primer (Jackson writes: “Fear and guilt are sisters; Theodora caught [up with Eleanor] on the lawn.”). Discussing the scene in which Theodora’s bedroom is defiled, Hattenhauer observes that Eleanor “apparently smears menstrual blood on Theodora’s clothing and then blocks out any memory of doing so” (163). But that would have to have been one deluge of a period to produce “so much blood” (Jackson 114), and Hattenhauer’s reading of the incident in natural and psychological terms fails to explain the complete disappearance (later in the novel) of the blood smears from both the bedroom wall and Theodora’s clothing. Finally, Hattenhauer outdoes himself when considering the author’s notes for her novel: “Jackson (apparently unconsciously) inscribes herself into the house. Her several sketches of the two-storey house exhibit traces of her body” (164). Naturally, Hattenhauer fails to reproduce the sketches that would corroborate such an off-the-wall theory.
The main problem, meanwhile, with Dale Bailey’s American Nightmares: The Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction, is that the author (a horror writer as well as an academic) seems preoccupied with legitimizing the haunted-house subgenre as a subject worthy of scholarly scrutiny. In his constant search for deeper meaning, Bailey refuses to consider the novels’ domestic horrors on their own terms: “In the hands of the best paperback novelists,” he writes, “the haunted house becomes a strikingly versatile metaphor; transcending the glossy cliches of formula, it drags into light the nightmarish tensions of gender, class, and culture hidden at the heart of American life” (24). Accordingly, Bailey argues that Jackson employs Hill House “as a metaphor for an oppressive patriarchal society” (28). He reads the novel in light of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” an 1892 weird tale in which medically-prescribed home confinement exacerbates rather than cures the female narrator’s mental and emotional woes. Jackson no doubt alludes to Gilman’s story (although Bailey fails to forge any specific intertextual links). Dr. John Montague’s plan to “rent Hill House for three months” (Jackson 1) starting in late June recalls the doctor named John in “The Yellow Wallpaper” who likewise makes a summer rental of a Gothic manse. His wife’s comments as she obsesses over the titular wallpaper (e.g. “It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide–plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions” [Gilman 462]) are echoed by Eleanor’s reaction to her blue-wallpapered bedroom at Hill House. Scanning the perimeter of the room, Eleanor ponders:
It had an unbelievably faulty design which left it chillingly wrong in all its dimensions, so that the walls seemed always in one direction a fraction longer than the eye could endure, and in another direction a fraction less than the barest possible length; this is where they want me to sleep, Eleanor thought incredulously; what nightmares are waiting, shadowed, in those high corners–what breath of mindless fear will drift across my mouth… (28-29)
Yet just because two texts parallel each other in some regards does not mean they do so in all regards. Jackson ultimately appears more interested in the frisson generated by “The Yellow Wallpaper’s” ambiguities (mental breakdown occurring in a quite possibly haunted setting) than in rehearsing an unmistakable feminist critique (during the rest cure forced upon her, Gilman’s narrator significantly comes to perceive a female figure trapped behind the wallpaper). Bailey, whose book is representative of the predominant feminist-psychoanalytical approach to The Haunting of Hill House, misses the mark when he targets the patriarchy as the arch-villain of Jackson’s novel. Eleanor’s problems trace back to her relationship with her unpleasant mother, not the father whose absence Eleanor regrets: during her childhood “it had seemed to be summer all the time; she could not remember a winter before her father’s death on a cold wet day” (Jackson 9-10). The textual evidence further contradicts Bailey’s positing of Hill House as “the vast corrupt palace of the patriarchy itself” (41); with its “concentric circles of rooms” (Jackson 73) and rounded furniture, Hill House (whose very name suggests female contours) is more overtly figured as a “mother house” (156). Similarly, Bailey’s ultra-Freudian assertion that Eleanor “ascends the library’s phallic tower in a moment of ‘intoxicating’ sexual union with the patriarchy” (43) overstates the case–in this scene Eleanor (a character too sexually repressed to engage in wanton union) believes she is chasing after her “Mother” (168). Sometimes, Bailey should be reminded, a tower is just a tower.
Bailey is not the only horror author to make a nonfiction study of Hill House. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King devotes considerable space to Jackson’s novel, which he lauds as one of the only two (Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw being the other) “great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years” (270). King’s comments are not devoid of error–even as he extols the brilliance of Jackson’s opening paragraph, he flubs the analysis of the lines. Jackson begins: “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 […]” (1). The implication here is that Hill House has been subjected to too much absolute reality, but King misreads the passage and claims that the house “does not exist under conditions of absolute reality; therefore it does not dream; therefore it is not sane” (256). Also, for all the admirable rigor King demonstrates in mapping out the novel’s interpretive possibilities, he falls disappointingly short in his commentary by ruling out one particular reading: “the one thing we can be sure of is that there are no actual ghosts in Hill House. None of the four companions come upon the shade of the companion flapping up the hall with with a rope burn around her ectoplasmic neck” (274, emphasis mine). This last statement is true enough, yet signals how easily Jackson’s subtlety can mislead–just because the author is not so blunt as to let a ghost manifest front and center in the novel does not mean it is not there haunting Hill House.
King’s denial of a ghostly presence in Hill House represents the fundamental flaw in the literary criticism of Jackson’s novel. Time and again over the past half-century, the strange happenings at Hill House have been explained in either psychological (i.e. as the unconscious projections of the disturbed and telekinetically-gifted Eleanor) or vaguely supernatural terms (i.e. the house itself has been malevolently sentient since its construction). Marvin Kaye, in a bibliographical appendix to his anthology Ghosts, qualifies his inclusion of The Haunting of Hill House, which is “technically a twisted story of haunted people” (650). Critics Dara Downey and Darryl Jones conversely assert: “The manifestations themselves, their multifarious nature, and the fact that they almost never take visible form, all imply an amorphous malevolent force, without origins or motives” (226). A closer reading of the novel, though, exposes the limits of these polarized perspectives, which jointly overlook the fact that Jackson has scripted a bona fide ghost story. Lenemaja Friedman is a rare critic who holds that “the reader must accept the possibility of ghosts…all members of the party share in seeing and hearing the same manifestations, which are not the product of any one person’s imagination” (126). But one can still take another step beyond Friedman’s generic discussion of “the spirits of the house” (124). For all her crafted ambiguity, Jackson embeds key clues within her text that point to a specific ghost haunting the premises. After fifty years’ worth of confusion, the time has come to identify (the origins and motives of) Hill House’s resident revenant.
II.WALKING THE HOUSE
A strictly psychological reading of the events of the novel does not suffice; Eleanor’s troubled subconscious is not the true source of the haunting at Hill House. Yes, Eleanor appears capable of telekinesis (an ability she consciously denies), as suggested by the repressed “showers of stones” incident (3) when Eleanor was twelve and still distraught over her father’s death a month earlier. And yes, she carries a lot more baggage to Hill House than her one suitcase. She’s spent the past eleven years (from age 21-32) nursing her invalid mother, a miserable period marked by “small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness and unending despair” (3). Her life circumstances have no doubt stunted her personal growth: Eleanor “had spent so long alone, with no one to love, that it was difficult for her to talk, even casually, to another person without self-consciousness and an awkward inability to find words.” It is certainly tempting to read this backstory into Eleanor’s experiences at Hill House. For instance, her underlying guilt that she is to blame for her mother’s death–because she didn’t awake and respond to her mother’s knock on the bedroom wall–can be seen to manifest as the awful pounding on the bedroom door at Hill House. Similarly, the “cold air of mold and earth” (75) that (only) Eleanor senses within the library might merely be an association on her part of the library’s books with those she had to read aloud to her mother “for two hours every afternoon” (62). The cold spot inside the doorway to the nursery likewise can be linked to Eleanor’s shame at having to sleep (as she finally admits to the others at novel’s end) “in the baby’s room” (177) of her sister’s home.
By the same token, the hatred Eleanor feels for her family can be seen to color her relationship with her pseudo-sibling Theodora. Did Eleanor (who in her self-consciousness is quick to sense persecution by others) bloody Theodora’s more stylish wardrobe in retaliation, resenting Theodora’s suggestion that Eleanor herself had scribbled the message “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME” (107) on the wall of the upstairs hallway? Before chalking up the incident to a fit of telekinetic rage, though, one must note that the initial hallway message was written in chalk. At the start of the scene immediately following the soaking of Theodora’s clothes, Luke Sanderson reads from a book he’s removed from the Hill House library: “It was the custom, rigidly adhered to […] for the public executioner, before a quartering, to outline his knife strokes in chalk upon the belly of his victim–for fear of a slip, you understand” (116). The timing and nature of the detail raises the idea that whatever haunts Hill House has acted to “quarter” the four human investigators by turning them against one another. One simply cannot discount the possibility that the haunting agent taps into Eleanor’s fear and loathing (much like the telepathic Theodora repeatedly reads Eleanor’s mind) and uses this insider information to insidious advantage. The strange happenings at the house (e.g. thunderous pounding on the bedroom door while Montague and Luke are simultaneously lured away by a canine apparition) seem too complex and diverse to be the mere product of telekinesis, however prodigious Eleanor’s talent might be.
Ironically, the converse theory that the house itself is sentient and innately evil can be traced back to Eleanor’s own consciousness. The perception of a human countenance in a mansion’s facade is a Gothic motif that goes all the way back to Poe’s House of Usher, and Eleanor engages in such fanciful viewing the instant she lays eyes on Hill House: “the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice” (24). The house “seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders.” The repetition of “seemed” is noteworthy here, a reminder that much of the ominous depiction of Hill House is framed by Eleanor’s subjective response. She has “the vivid feeling that [the house] was waiting for her, evil, but patient” (25, emphasis mine). Similar qualification marks her “quick impression of the builders finishing off the second and third stories of the house with a kind of indecent haste” (26). Moreover, it’s hard for the reader to trust blindly here in Eleanor’s perspective after just seeing her in action in Chapter One, where her rampant fantasizing during her long trek to Hill House reveals an imagination prone to running wild.
But Eleanor’s is not the only unreliable viewpoint; the novel’s other main proponent of the “born bad” (50) theory of Hill House–Dr. Montague–is a character from whom Jackson keeps a satiric distance throughout. This is certainly not the debonair figure cut by actor Richard Johnson (as “Dr. Markway”) in the first film adaptation of the novel. No, Jackson’s Dr. Montague is “a little man both knowledgeable and stubborn” (43), a man quite possibly cuckolded by his wife and the hyper-masculine Arthur Parker. Perhaps the one intriguing aspect of Darryl Hattenhauer’s otherwise muddled analysis of Hill House is the critic’s observation that Montague’s character serves as Jackson’s parody of her own husband (and known philanderer), Professor Stanley Edgar Hyman. Hattenhauer claims: “Jackson tweaks Hyman by having her narrator and characters almost always call Montague ‘Doctor,’ rubbing in the fact that Hyman had no doctorate” (155). Interestingly, on the very first page of the novel, Jackson writes that Dr. Montague “was scrupulous about the use of his title because, his investigations being so utterly unscientific, he hoped to borrow an air of respectability, even scholarly authority, from his education” (a respectability he ultimately fails to achieve: on the novel’s last page we learn that Montague “retired from active scholarly pursuits after the cool, almost contemptuous reception of his preliminary article analyzing the psychic phenomena of Hill House” ). Hattenhauer finds additional significance in Jackson’s choice of Montague’s surname, since anthropologist Ashley Montague was “known as one of Bennington’s [the college where Hyman taught] most effete faculty members” (155).
The point here is that if Jackson was in fact grinding a marital axe and satirizing Hyman, then Montague’s authority as a commentator on Hill House must be called into question. Belying his own prior claims to scholarly objectivity (his hesitancy to take a side, before investigating Hill House himself, in the debate on “whether its personality was molded by the people who lived here, or the things they did, or whether it was evil from the start” ), Montague gets worked up over his recounting of Hill House’s history to the others and ends up blurting: “The evil is the house itself, I think. It has enchained and destroyed its people and their lives, it is a place of contained ill will” (60). Montague appears to have spooked himself with his own fireside story; in the next scene he steps out of the room momentarily and returns visibly shaken, mumbling: “The house. It watches every move you make” (62). The doctor inspires no faith in his skill as an interpreter of the supernatural when he posits that “the American twins [in Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost”] were actually a poltergeist phenomenon” (103), and his glosses on Hill House prove just as dubious. Referencing the tragedy of a guest from eighteen years earlier whose bolting horse crushed him against a tree alongside the driveway, Montague asserts: “Hill House has a reputation for insistent hospitality; it seemingly dislikes its guests getting away” (48). Tellingly, Montague fails to even consider that the exact opposite might be true: that the man perished in his haste to flee from a malevolence determined to expel him from Hill House.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the tendency to seize upon alternate explanations of the haunting at Hill House (telekinetic Eleanor; Hill House born bad) is the fact that Jackson herself gave plenty of indication that she was producing a ghost story. “No one can get into a novel about a haunted house,” the author commented upon her projected book, “without hitting the subject of reality head-on; either I have to believe in ghosts, which I do, or I have to write another kind of novel altogether” (qtd. in Oppenheimer 226). In researching her novel, Jackson read “all the books about ghosts I could get hold of, and particularly true ghost stories” (“Experience and Fiction” 202). Consider as well the anecdote shared by director Robert Wise in the feature commentary of The Haunting DVD. Wise relates how he approached Jackson about the meaning of her novel, offering to her that it wasn’t a ghost story at all but rather a portrait of a woman’s nervous breakdown. He then quotes her blunt response to his inquiry as to whether that was what she had in mind: “No, but it’s a damn good idea.” Jackson ultimately espouses neither a strict psychological realism nor a vague supernaturalism. Yes, Hill House is anthropomorphized by Jackson’s prose–the parallelism of the novel’s first two sentences likens the house to a live, insane organism–but such Gothic personification should not overshadow the fact that the ghost of a former living person haunts Hill House. The very trajectory of the novel’s opening paragraph leads us from the overtly material to the intangible: “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” (1). Throughout the novel, Eleanor repeatedly detects that invisible something walking, both within the confines of Hill House and outside on the grounds of the estate.
Which deceased character, then, lingers on as the ghost haunting Hill house? Hugh Crain, the man who had the mansion built, might quickly be ruled out: he spent relatively little time himself inhabiting Hill House, living (and eventually dying) abroad with his consumptive third wife. Crain’s first wife, meanwhile, forms one possible candidate for ghosthood, having died in a carriage accident in the driveway upon first arrival (her posthumous jealousy could also be the cause of the second wife’s reported fatal plummet). Still, there is an even more likely suspect than the first Mrs. Crain. Unlike Dr. Montague, I will “put a name” (53) at last to what haunts Hill House: the disgruntled ghost of Hugh Crain’s eldest daughter, Sophia Anne Lester Crain.
Sophia is the only member of the Crain family (Hugh, first wife, two daughters) to die within Hill House. We can infer that Sophia (the only daughter given a name in the novel) is one and the same with this “old Miss Crain” (56) by turning to the primer Hugh Crain addressed to his then-young daughter. With its fiery rhetoric and lurid drawings (particularly for the deadly sin of Lust), the primer is a masterpiece of hypocritical Puritanism. A hint of lecherousness creeps into Hugh Crain’s exhortations that his daughter “preserve thyself” (124) from earthly desire, so that she and her “everloving father” might be “joined together hereafter in unending bliss” (126). No doubt such a document made a strong impression on the young girl (with Hugh Crain managing to have an overbearing presence even as an absentee father living in Europe), and the details that the never-married old Miss Crain was “crossed in love” and “resembled her father strongly” (56) suggest that this is the primer-molded Sophia. Sophia goes on as an adult to live alone in Hill House “for a number of years, almost in seclusion,” until taking on a village girl as a “kind of companion” late in life. After the elderly Sophia dies of pneumonia, rumors swirl “of a doctor called too late, of the old lady lying neglected upstairs while the younger woman dallied in the garden with some village lout.” Sophia’s alleged betrayal by the companion (who then inherits Hill House) supplies a clear motivation for Sophia haunting the premises as a ghost. Significantly, “there seems to have been no strong feeling among the villagers about the house” prior to Sophia’s death, but soon after that passing Hill House earns a haunted reputation. The harried companion accuses the surviving Crain sister of sneaking into Hill House each night and stealing things, but perhaps the “poisonous vengefulness” (57) belongs more truly to the ghost of Sophia (who terrorizes the companion into hanging herself in the library tower). In life, Sophia was known to be possessive (she refused to hand over to her sister the furniture and dishes that were the price of the younger sibling relinquishing her claim to Hill House), and she might be equally possessive in death (hiding those same heirlooms elsewhere in the house). Sophia, who “genuinely loved Hill House and looked upon it as her family home” (56), apparently cannot stand to see it passed from the Crains to the Sandersons (the companion’s family). Hell-bent on being the sole occupant of Hill House, Sophia frightens off the Sandersons and all subsequent renters.
No less than her final days, Sophia’s early childhood points to her later spectral inhabitance of Hill House. Along with her sister, young Sophia was abandoned by her father (who sailed overseas with his convalescing third wife). “The two little girls,” Montague recounts, “were left here [at Hill House] with their governess” (55). Here Jackson alludes to The Turn of the Screw, Henry James’s classic ghost novel involving an uncaring uncle/guardian who leaves the siblings Miles and Flora in the possibly corrupting hands of the governess Miss Jessel and her lover Peter Quint. Jackson in turn implies that the Crain sisters have been warped by their upbringing in the stark, loveless environs of Hill House. Fittingly, the house’s “most haunted room” (133) is the nursery where the two children once slept (the place has “an indefinable air of neglect found nowhere else in Hill House” ). Also, the mysterious cold spot outside the threshold to the nursery manifests at the point on the floor where the “two grinning heads” (symbolizing the two sisters) above the doorway stare down onto with their faces frozen in “distorted laughter” (88). When Eleanor and company finally encounter sign of supernatural unrest at Hill House, the “hammering was against the upper edge of [Theodora’s bedroom] door” (95)–recalling the location of the two grinning heads. The racket “sounds like something children do” (94), and Eleanor even hears a “little mad rising laugh” (97) outside the door. An additional clue that a Crain sister is responsible for the banging is planted when Eleanor first arrives at the front door of Hill House, a door adorned with “a heavy iron knocker that had a child’s face” (25). “Those two poor little girls,” Eleanor later expresses. “I can’t forget them, walking through these dark rooms” (59). In light of the various textual clues Jackson provides, it is not unreasonable to assume that the spirit of Sophia (the poor little Crain girl who died as an adult within Hill House ) has returned to walk through those same dark rooms.
Children/childishness forms a recurrent theme in the novel. Consider Eleanor’s mindset upon realizing she will be alone at Hill House until the other group members arrive: “I think I’m going to cry, she thought, like a child sobbing and wailing, I don’t like it here…” (26). Following the frightful pounding on the bedroom door, Eleanor admits that she and Theodora have “been clutching each other like a couple of lost children” (97). A curious infantilism marks Eleanor and Theodora’s relationship: each is constantly calling the other “baby”; they sit cross-legged and play tic-tac-toe on the hall floor (110); at one point Theodora even pulls Eleanor’s hair and shouts, “Race you around the veranda” (81). Eleanor and Theodora’s behavior forms an echo of the childhood existence of the Crain sisters at Hill House. Likewise, the eventual souring of their relationship (the implicitly lesbian Theodora seems to bristle at Eleanor’s romantic interest in Luke) parallels the possible sexual intrigue that precipitated the initial falling out of the Crain sisters (the suggestion that the younger, married Crain “[s]tole her sister’s beau” ). Jackson further forges the link between past and present when she draws specific lines of connection between Sophia and Eleanor. Each has been forced by the circumstances of family life into a lonely, spinsterish adulthood. Both Sophia and Eleanor suffer from a lack of maternal nurturing (Mrs. Crain having died tragically; Mrs. Vance having such a cross disposition). Sophia’s “constant disagreement with her sister over the house” (56) recalls Eleanor’s trouble with her own sister over the car they co-own. There is one other interesting parallel to note: just as Hugh Crain’s primer for Sophia is dated “Twenty-first June, 1881” (123), the paternalistic Dr. Montague (who repeatedly dubs Eleanor, Theodora, and Luke his three children) instructs Eleanor to come to Hill House on “Thursday the twenty-first of June” (11). The subtle identity that Jackson draws between Sophia and Eleanor helps identify the ghost haunting Eleanor during her stay at Hill House. Perhaps the spectral Sophia targets Eleanor not just because she’s the weakest link (the nervous Nellie exuding the most fear), not because she has the largest skeleton in her closet (her dead mother), but because in Eleanor Sophia recognizes a kindred spirit.
When Dr. Montague frets that Eleanor might come “too close to the state of mind which would welcome the perils of Hill House with a kind of sisterly embrace” (103), his choice of phrasing is significant. Eleanor gravely imperils herself by believing that she will be held “tight and safe” (159) at Hill House. The foul-playing Sophia Crain, who in life proved unwilling to share Hill House with her biological sister, works to alienate Eleanor. Sophia probes Eleanor’s mind and pushes all the appropriate buttons. For instance, the wall-scrawled messages “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME” (107, 114) represent less an invitation to settle into Hill House than a case of Sophia trying to take advantage of Eleanor’s guilt over sneaking off with the car she shared with her sister Carrie (in the novel’s first dramatic scene, where Eleanor argues with Carrie over the use of the car, Carrie’s husband keeps making the point that they might need the car if one of the family members got sick while on vacation in the mountains). Notice also how Eleanor, who relishes being “a complete and separate thing” (60) and hates seeing herself “dissolve and slip and separate” (118), blanches at the message-writer making use of her “own dear name.” The accompanying bloodying of Theodora’s wardrobe thus proves a fiendishly clever gambit, further compromising Eleanor’s sense of self as Theodora is forced to dress in Eleanor’s clothes. Similarly, Eleanor, with her aversion to “being touched” (62), seems to have hand clutched during a bad dream (prompting her hysterical outcry: “God God–whose hand was I holding?” ). Perhaps sensing Eleanor’s yearning for the happier days of her youth, Sophia also tempts her with visions of family picnics and songs from childhood games. For the most part, though, the haunting operates via torment, wearing down Eleanor’s psychic defenses until she can no longer differentiate the noise inside and outside her head. In the scene where the house has its greatest fit, the upheaval is too much for Eleanor to bear. Inviting the breach of her precious ego boundaries, she silently swears: “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” (150). Interestingly, after this point Eleanor possesses an apparent supernatural awareness of the entire house, an uncanny ability likely resulting from Sophia’s psychic infiltration.
Finally, by turning to Eleanor’s death scene, one can discern that the perceived haunting at Hill House has not just been a product of Eleanor’s own mounting insanity. The idea that she has been driven mad all the while is reinforced by her last being seen driving her car. After the incident in the library (where she is almost lured to suicide in the tower), Eleanor is dismissed from the investigation by Dr. Montague. She begs to be allowed to remain, confessing that she has no home to return to now that she has stolen the car from her sister, but Montague is firm. Stubbornly, Eleanor tells herself “they can’t make me leave, not if Hill House means me to stay” and “Hill House belongs to me” (181). She drives off, speeds up, and aims her car at the tree alongside the driveway, reveling in the belief in that she has taken this action all by herself. The car never veers from its deadly path, but Jackson does give us a final swerve. In the novel’s penultimate paragraph (a passage cited earlier but worth quoting again), the author writes: “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?” (182). That single adverb “clearly” might be the key to the entire novel. Eleanor’s lucidity just prior to her death suggests a last-second dispossession by Sophia. Too late, Eleanor realizes “that she has, in fact, been manipulated on the subconscious level into believing that she has been pulling the strings” (King, Danse Macabre 278-9). Sophia, who never shows herself completely, has also shrouded her true motive–to cast Eleanor out of Hill House forever.
This intention has been perennially misconstrued by interpreters of Jackson’s novel. Discussing The Haunting of Hill House in her entry in The Book of Lists: Horror, Sarah Pinborough claims that Hill House “seeks out lost and lonely souls to keep it company” (270-1). More disconcertingly, the back cover copy of the Penguin Classics edition of Jackson’s novel (mis)states: “For Hill House is gathering its powers–and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.” Even the first film adaptation garbles Jackson’s ending when it concludes with Eleanor’s ghostly voiceover: “We who walk here walk alone.” In Jackson’s novel, Sophia seeks to keep Hill House all to herself; by steering Eleanor toward ruination she succeeds in driving out the entire group of investigators. At the start of the concluding paragraph that serves as the novel’s coda, we learn that legal owner Mrs. Sanderson (Luke’s aunt) “was enormously relieved to hear that Dr. Montague and his party had left Hill House; she would have turned them out, she told the family lawyer, if Dr. Montague had shown any sign of wanting to stay” (182). Her malicious mission accomplished, Sophia Crain can now get back to her habitual business (as the novel closes by repeating the lines of the opening paragraph) of walking alone.
The 50th Anniversary of the publication of The Haunting of Hill House marks an appropriate time not only to look back on the novel itself but also to note its subsequent influence. To date there have been two film versions: Robert Wise’s faithfully atmospheric The Haunting (1962), and Jan de Bont’s abominable, CGI-rife remake (1999), the latter as critically panned as the former is acclaimed. Still, the book’s greater legacy can be traced in the realm of fiction. Over the past five decades, Hill House has provided an architectural blueprint for a slew of haunted houses in the horror community. Consider the following macabre McMansions that have sprung up across the American Gothic landscape:
Richard Matheson’s Hell House (1971) stands as a more graphically violent and sexually charged version of Hill House. The basic plot parallels here are hard to miss: an investigating foursome move into a remote New England house of horrors (in which the servant couple from a neighboring town refuse to sleep [Matheson 3]). Moreover, the character of Florence Tanner clearly mirrors Eleanor Vance. At first sight Florence exclaims that Hell House is “hideous” (27), echoing Eleanor’s initial outraged reaction to Hill House. Eleanor balks at entering the library because of the perceived stench; Florence can’t go into the chapel because the “atmosphere here is more than [she] can bear” (35). Much like the psychologically fragile Eleanor, Florence represents the group’s “weakest link” (286), and dies after being fiendishly duped by the ghost haunting Hell House.
Anne Rivers Siddons’s Southern gothic novel The House Next Door (1978) involves a recently-built but malignant home (“haunted” by the latent evil of its architect) that preys “on the weakness and inherent flaws in the characters of the people who live there” (Siddons 327). Siddons has cited Hill House “as nearly perfect a haunted-house tale as I have ever read” (qtd. in King, Danse Macabre 259), and such reading has left a discernible imprint. Planning to set fire to the neighboring home, Siddons’s narrator Colquitt Kennedy comments in the book’s prologue that “[i]n another time they would have plowed the charred ground and sowed it with salt” (5)–a remark echoing Dr. Montague’s indirect quote of a former tenant of Hill House, who “ended by saying that in his opinion, the house ought to be burned down and the ground sowed with salt” (Jackson 51).
The titular domicile of Peter Straub’s 1980 novel Shadowland (a “haunted house”  in the sense that it brims with the dark magic of the master conjurer residing there) exists several miles beyond a town whose very name recalls the village of Hillsdale in Jackson’s novel: “Hilly Vale” (162). During a summer apprenticeship at Shadowland back when he was 15, protagonist Tom Flanagan “felt the house claiming him” (320), and “[i]t seemed to him that he could visualize every inch of the house, every curve of the stair posts, every watermark in the kitchen sink” (319)–sensations similar to Eleanor’s ostensible communion with Hill House toward the end of Jackson’s novel. The tunnel below Shadowland formerly used for “bootlegging” (375) also serves as a literalization of Eleanor’s early fancy of “a passageway going off into the hills and probably used by smugglers” (Jackson 23).
Marvin Kaye and Parke Godwin’s A Cold Blue Light (1983) builds upon the same foundation that Matheson did earlier: a team of scientists and mediums descends upon the Pennsylvanian manse known as Aubrey House. Another Eleanor Vance clone appears in the person of Vita Henry, a sexually-frustrated woman tragically seduced into believing that Aubrey House “welcomed and protected her” (144). The cold blue light seemingly rooted in the upstairs hallway of Aubrey House also brings to mind the cold spot fixed outside the door of Hill House’s second-floor nursery.
In his short novel Elsewhere, Exorcist scribe William Peter Blatty has a quartet of investigators–a group led by a university professor with research interests in the paranormal–settle into a labyrinthine mansion (“it’s disordered, no sense to where anything leads” ) with a shady reputation. Blatty (whose plot ultimately offers a clever twist on the haunted house formula) echoes famous fright moments from Jackson’s novel and Wise’s film, most notably the scene of a furious, inexplicable pounding on a bedroom door.
In his postmodern horror novel Demon Theory (2006), Stephen Graham Jones diligently cites his sources within a slew of endnotes. Note 29 (occasioned by the characters’ first glimpse of the ominous house in the novel) appropriately reads: “In Shirley Jackson’s 1959 urtext The Haunting of Hill House, Eleanor’s first thought after turning ‘her car onto the last stretch of straight drive’ and encountering Hill House ‘face to face’ is that the house is vile. Her second thought is ‘get away from here at once'” (Jones 380).
Sarah Langan’s Audrey’s Door (2009) wears its influences on its leaves (in a short preface, the author lists The Haunting of Hill House first among the texts that “particularly inspired” her novel). The book’s haunted Manhattan apartment building proves just as architecturally askew as Hill House: “The Breviary’s floors differed in height from one story to the next, and its walls didn’t intersect at right angles but were either obtuse or acute” (9). Recent renter Audrey Lucas–a socially awkward, emotionally unstable thirtysomething who’s been scarred by her lifelong struggle with her mentally ill mother–also reflects Jackson’s protagonist when she sees “through the Breviary’s eyes” (388) and achieves an omniscient awareness of events throughout the building. Perhaps Langan’s most impressive echo of Jackson, though, comes in the opening of Chapter 41 “The Breviary” (“No thinking creature can tolerate captivity. In the presence of just four white walls, the mind invents […]” )–a clever pastiche of Hill House’s famous “No live organism…” first paragraph.
Yet none of these authors represent the prime inheritor of Jackson’s legacy; that distinction belongs to horror’s greatest success story. Indeed, no single novel has had a more extensive influence on Stephen King’s oeuvre than The Haunting of Hill House. The influence is evident in King’s first published book, Carrie, whose title teen shares Eleanor Vance’s telekinetic abilities (as well as the name of Eleanor’s sister). Carrie’s backstory features a “rain of stones” (3) episode that further aligns her with Jackson’s protagonist. In King’s second novel ‘Salem’s Lot, the looming Marsten House is also given a Jacksonian frame of reference. Part One of the novel employs the opening paragraph of Hill House as an epigraph; within the text, protagonist Ben Mears also invokes the book by title and author, and quotes to Susan Norton: “‘And whatever walked there walked alone.’ You asked me what my book [on the Marsten House] was about. Essentially, it’s about the recurrent power of evil” (111). Similarly, Jack Torrance ruminates upon the ghost-infested Overlook Hotel in The Shining: “if it played its cards right they [i.e. Jack and his family] could end up flitting through the Overlook’s halls like insubstantial shades in a Shirley Jackson novel, whatever walked in Hill House walked alone, but you wouldn’t be alone in the Overlook, oh no, there would be plenty of company here” (281). The omniscient narrator of King’s post-Talisman collaboration with Peter Straub, Black House, draws a stricter analogy: “Black House–like Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, like the turn-of-the-century monstrosity in Seattle known as Rose Red–is not sane” (567). Rose Red, of course, is the eponymous haunted house in the 2002 King-scripted TV miniseries–which, interestingly enough, “had its beginnings in a[n aborted] project involving King and Steven Spielberg, the 1999 remake of The Haunting” (Wiater, Golden, and Wagner 402-3). King treads upon familiar ground in Rose Red: the telekinetic teen (here, Annie Wheaton) who caused a rain of stones as a child; the specially-gathered, psychologically-gifted team of investigators who make an unfortunate foray into an old manse. The academic organizing the mission, Dr. Joyce Reardon, even quotes (albeit in misinterpretation): “Shirley Jackson was right. Some houses are born bad.”
King’s Bad Places repeatedly hearken back to Hill House, but the extent of the novel’s infiltration of King’s imagination can be gleaned by turning to his narratives that are not focused on haunted houses. In Pet Sematary (1983), Rachel Creed’s abiding guilt over her failure to save her invalid sister Zelda from dying at home in the bedroom (a guilt compounded by Rachel’s secret happiness at the time over that death) clearly recalls the family drama that haunts Eleanor Vance. Similarly, the story of old Miss Crain and her companion resonates in King’s Dolores Claiborne (1993): the title character serves as a live-in nurse to a sick, elderly woman who dies under mysterious circumstances (in the town’s eyes, at least) inside the sprawling New England home that is subsequently bequeathed to Dolores. In King’s 1987 novel The Tommyknockers, the town of Haven has a tellingly-named founding father: Haven “began municipal existence in 1816 as Montville Plantation. It was owned, lock, stock, and barrel, by a man named Hugh Crane” (167). Hill House even works its way into as unlikely a spot as the 1982 novella The Body. The scene (384) where a disoriented Gordie LaChance awakens during an overnight campout believing it’s so cold in his bedroom because his (now-months-dead) brother left the window open–and then realizes that he [Gordie] isn’t home and that a terrible din has started–parallels the scene (93) where a groggy, chilly Eleanor wakes up in Hill House thinking that the pounding on the door is the sound of her (now-months-dead) mother knocking on the bedroom wall of their own home. If the late Shirley Jackson was a writer “who never needed to raise her voice,” as King asserts on the dedication page of his 1980 novel Firestarter, then no writer has done more than horror’s long-reigning monarch to keep that voice heard, both by singing Jackson’s praises in his nonfiction and sounding echoes of her classic novel throughout his body of fiction.
For all its well-earned renown, Jackson’s novel is not a flawless construction. Certain aspects of Hill House have not aged gracefully over the past half-century. For instance, obtrusive adverbs encumber Jackson’s dialogue tags: throughout the novel, characters say (or think) things “inadequately” (35), “wisely” (62), “roundly” (79), “stanchly” (87), “conscientiously” (113), “impudently” (143), and “wickedly” (164). At times, the dialogue itself devolves into “excruciatingly arch banter” (Miller xx). Also, the author’s decision to keep the horrors masked and forego overt explanation sometimes lead to plot developments that strain belief: it’s hard to fathom that the four main characters would not have discussed afterward what exactly Theodora saw out on the grounds when she turned from the envisioned family picnic and then screamed to Eleanor to run and not look back (130).
Still, the novel’s strengths far outweigh its flaws. Jackson is unparalleled when it comes to crafting scenes in which things go bump in the night (or bang on a bedroom door). The novel expertly uses unity of setting to claustrophobic effect: starting with Chapter 2, the stage does not shift from the house and its hill-surrounded grounds. Jackson builds her setting through the steady accretion of detail, as the characters gradually explore the layout and Gothic contents (statues, ancient tomes, spiral staircases, etc.) of the house and struggle to orient themselves within Hugh Crain’s “masterpiece of architectural misdirection” (78). Perhaps the novel’s strongest quality is its reflexivity. As readers, we activate the novel’s title and engage in our own “haunting” of Hill House–when we step inside the book we assume the same subject position as the characters investigating the house’s mysteries and accordingly open ourselves up to the same frightful experience. Early on, we are told that Dr. Montague’s letters to prospective team members “had a certain ambiguous dignity calculated to catch the imagination of a very special sort of reader” (2), a statement that serves as the perfect description of the novel’s own workings. Jackson’s clever entrapment of readers in such an unsettling setting has helped The Haunting of Hill House stand as a masterwork of terror for fifty years; there is little reason to doubt that it will stand so for fifty more.
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