Category Archives: Jackson, Shirley

The Haunting of Hill House

All the way back in 2012, I migrated from Blogger to WP. In that time, I’ve had multiple blogs, with differing themes, I’ve been self-hosted and I’ve used free sites, and I’ve been generally unable to commit to anything. I’ve decided at this point that I want all of my bookish content to live in one place. So, over the next several months, I’ll be republishing posts that have long been published on other blogs, adding reviews to my review index, and then eventually deleting those old posts & blogs for good.

I’m starting with my first classics club project – the OG of reading projects for me – which ran from 2012 through 2015.

The Haunting of Hill HouseThe Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Rating: ★★★★★
Publication Date: October 16, 1959
Pages: 182
Genre: classic, horror
Project: classics club round 1

It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a "haunting"; Theodora, the lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

Shirley Jackson wrote and published The Haunting of Hill House in 1959. A classic ghost story, it owes a debt to the Victorian antiquarian ghost stories of writers like M.R. James, but approaches the genre from a totally different style. Rather than indulging in flowery, gothic, Victorian prose, Jackson is a stripped-down writer of great emotional engagement. The spareness of her prose is what gives her work its authority and power.

The book has a very limited cast, and is written on a small scale. There are the four primary characters – Professor Montague, Luke, Theodora and Eleanor. Eleanor develops as the primary narrator, and the primary focus of Hill House itself. A young woman with a history of psychic sensitivity, she is an unreliable narrator, and there are questions that are never resolved. She arrived first at Hill House – was the haunting a projection of her psychic sensitivity? Why was she the primary focus of Hill House? Was there a single ghost, or multiple spirits, or is it the house itself that is a malevolent presence seeking companionship?

In addition to this primary quartet, there are two characters who are the “help,” who come and go from Hill House without interference, and, late in the book, the Professor’s oddly cheerful wife shows up with a side kick. It is her plan to gently guide – or possibly to force – the spirits to pass from earthly discontent into heavenly peacefulness. Mrs. Montague is an archetypal character, the managing female who interferes with the work to be done by the men. This is the point at which the book, and the house, seem to take a turn into even deeper darkness, as though a battle for the soul of Hill House has commenced, and Eleanor’s narration slips further and further into confusion.

One overriding theme of Hill House is that of movement toward an unknown destination. She uses the word “journey” over and over again, in discussing Eleanor’s trip toward Hill House, early in the book, and then between the four characters once they have arrived. At the beginning all is hopeful, optimistic, Eleanor drives her car toward Hill House with a sense of the possible.

“Just this once,” the mother said. She put down the glass of milk and touched the little girl gently on the hand. “Eat your ice cream,” she said.

When they left, the little girl waved good-by to Eleanor, and Eleanor waved back, sitting in joyful loneliness to finish her coffee while the gay stream tumbled along below her. I have not very much farther to go, Eleanor thought; I am more than halfway there. Journey’s end, she thought, and far back in her mind, sparkling like the little stream, a tag end of a tune danced through her head, bringing distantly a word or so;

“In delay there lies no plenty,” she thought, “in delay there lies no plenty.” She nearly stopped forever just outside Ashton, because she came to a tiny cottage buried in a garden. I could live there all alone, she thought, slowing the car to look down the winding garden path to the small blue front door with, perfectly, a white cat on the step. No one would ever find me there, either, behind all those roses, and just to make sure I would plant oleanders by the road. I will light a fire in the cool evenings and toast apples at my own hearth. I will raise white cats and sew white curtains for the windows and sometimes come out of my door to go to the store to buy cinnamon and tea and thread. People will come to me to have their fortunes told, and I will brew love potions for sad maidens; I will have a robin. . . . But the cottage was far behind, and it was time to look for her new road, so carefully charted by Dr. Montague.”

Jackson repeatedly uses the phrase “journeys end in lovers meeting,” fourteen times by count of my kindle. The phrase comes from Twelfth Night, Act II, a song sung by Feste, a jester:

O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O, stay and hear! Your true love’s coming,
That can sing both high and low.
Trip no further, pretty sweeting;
Journeys end in lovers meeting,
Every wise man’s son doth know.
What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter.
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty,
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty.
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

The first time the phrase is used is by Eleanor, in reference to her arrival at Hill House:

“It was an act of moral strength to lift her foot and set it on the bottom step, and she thought that her deep unwillingness to touch Hill House for the first time came directly from the vivid feeling that it was waiting for her, evil, but patient. Journeys end in lovers meeting, she thought, remembering her song at last, and laughed, standing on the steps of Hill House, journeys end in lovers meeting, and she put her feet down firmly and went up to the veranda and the door. Hill House came around her in a rush; she was enshadowed, and the sound of her feet on the wood of the veranda was an outrage in the utter silence, as though it had been a very long time since feet stamped across the boards of Hill House.”

The other characters use it as well, repeatedly, to describe the gathering at Hill House. It is used by Theodora, in potentially jealous reference to Eleanor’s relationship to Luke, it is used by Eleanor in reference to her own ambiguously sexual/romantic relationship with Theodora, and it is used, generally, in reference to the ending of Eleanor’s journey at Hill House.

Hill House, itself, looms over the book, a dark presence, pregnant with dread and malevolence. Jackson’s ability to describe the oddities of the house – the doors that won’t stay open, the angles that aren’t quite right, the rooms that don’t fit together in a way that is quite consistent with architecture and physics, is remarkable. Hill House takes on a character of its own, and overwhelms the characters themselves. In a battle of wills, Hill House wins.

“Hill House has a reputation for insistent hospitality; it seemingly dislikes letting its guests get away.”

This is a perfect book for October, when the sun turns on its journey away from us, and brings with it darkness. Suspenseful without being gory, never devolving into melodrama, it is a near perfect example of the haunted house novel. If you can only choose one Jackson novel to read, I would slightly more highly recommend the other well-known book by her – We Have Always Lived in the Castle. But why would a reader limit him or herself to only one? Read them both – always in autumn.

“Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. 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.”

We Have Always Lived In The Castle

All the way back in 2012, I migrated from Blogger to WP. In that time, I’ve had multiple blogs, with differing themes, I’ve been self-hosted and I’ve used free sites, and I’ve been generally unable to commit to anything. I’ve decided at this point that I want all of my bookish content to live in one place. So, over the next several months, I’ll be republishing posts that have long been published on other blogs, adding reviews to my review index, and then eventually deleting those old posts & blogs for good.

I’m starting with my first classics club project – the OG of reading projects for me – which ran from 2012 through 2015.

We Have Always Lived in the CastleWe Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Rating: ★★★★★
Publication Date: September 21, 1962
Pages: 146
Genre: classic, horror
Project: classics club round 1

Visitors call seldom at Blackwood House. Taking tea at the scene of a multiple poisoning, with a suspected murderess as one's host, is a perilous business. For a start, the talk tends to turn to arsenic. "It happened in this very room, and we still have our dinner in here every night," explains Uncle Julian, continually rehearsing the details of the fatal family meal. "My sister made these this morning," says Merricat, politely proffering a plate of rum cakes, fresh from the poisoner's kitchen. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson's 1962 novel, is full of a macabre and sinister humor, and Merricat herself, its amiable narrator, is one of the great unhinged heroines of literature. "What place would be better for us than this?" she asks, of the neat, secluded realm she shares with her uncle and with her beloved older sister, Constance. "Who wants us, outside? The world is full of terrible people." Merricat has developed an idiosyncratic system of rules and protective magic, burying talismanic objects beneath the family estate, nailing them to trees, ritually revisiting them. She has made "a powerful taut web which never loosened, but held fast to guard us" against the distrust and hostility of neighboring villagers.

Or so she believes. But at last the magic fails. A stranger arrives -- cousin Charles, with his eye on the Blackwood fortune. He disturbs the sisters' careful habits, installing himself at the head of the family table, unearthing Merricat's treasures, talking privately to Constance about "normal lives" and "boy friends." Unable to drive him away by either polite or occult means, Merricat adopts more desperate methods. The result is crisis and tragedy, the revelation of a terrible secret, the convergence of the villagers upon the house, and a spectacular unleashing of collective spite.

The sisters are propelled further into seclusion and solipsism, abandoning "time and the orderly pattern of our old days" in favor of an ever-narrowing circuit of ritual and shadow. They have themselves become talismans, to be alternately demonized and propitiated, darkly, with gifts. Jackson's novel emerges less as a study in eccentricity and more -- like some of her other fictions -- as a powerful critique of the anxious, ruthless processes involved in the maintenance of normality itself. "Poor strangers," says Merricat contentedly at last, studying trespassers from the darkness behind the barricaded Blackwood windows. "They have so much to be afraid of."

A slender book, only 148 pages long, that packs an outsized punch. Prior to reading it, I’d heard a lot about it, as well as a lot about Shirley Jackson, who is best known for her short story that launched a thousand anthologies: The Lottery. I vaguely remember reading The Lottery in high school, and finding it more than a little disturbing.

And it is my general sense that “more than a little disturbing” pretty much describes Shirley Jackson to a T.

In any event, I participate in a blog event every year called R.I.P. (Readers Imbibing Peril) that is hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings. It is a lot of fun, and is an opportunity to read books that are on the chiller/thriller/horror end of the spectrum. This was one of my R.I.P. reads for 2013.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a brief tale of two sisters: Merrikat and Constance, who live in their family home after someone has murdered every other member of the family (with the exception of their crazy uncle) using poisoned sugar six years earlier. Merrikat is 18, although she perpetually seems to be about 12, and Constance is her older sister, who was acquitted of the murders. The unsolved mass homicide hangs like a pall over the house, and over the village in which Merrikat and Constance live.

It is a fast read, a page turner, propelling me forward with a sense of vague unease and discomfort. I highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a little psychological horror. It is a remarkable book.

As an aside, I read The Haunting of Hill House earlier this year (well after reading this one – this review was long-delayed on my blog) and I actually prefer this one. Take that for what you will!

Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson

Title: Hangsaman
Author: Shirley Jackson
First published in 1951

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Seventeen-year-old Natalie Waite longs to escape home for college. Her father is a domineering and egotistical writer who keeps a tight rein on Natalie and her long-suffering mother. When Natalie finally does get away, however, college life doesn’t bring the happiness she expected. Little by little, Natalie is no longer certain of anything—even where reality ends and her dark imaginings begin. Chilling and suspenseful, Hangsaman is loosely based on the real-life disappearance of a Bennington College sophomore in 1946.

Hangsaman was Jackson’s second novel, after The Road through the Wall, which was published in 1948. Published in 1951, Hangsaman is nominally a bildungsroman about a college freshman named Natalie Waite who attends a Bennington College-like institution. She is the daughter of a second-rate writer and a mother who is a rather desperate housewife. Broken into basically three sections, the novel begins with Natalie at home, on the cusp of going away to college. The second part deals with her first weeks at school, and her fragility and difficulty adjusting to the changes. The third part is a frankly strange look at Natalie’s devolution into what appears to be mental illness. The ending is cryptic and unresolved.

There are several important women in this book. The male characters are largely superfluous to the story – being entirely self-absorbed and interacting with the women primarily as extensions of themselves, Eves to their Adams, created from their ribs, without independent significance. Natalie herself, as a college student, is in a state of limbo, as a young woman who has left the shelter of her father’s home but hasn’t yet transitioned to the shelter of a husband. She is very much in a waiting period – hence, probably, the last name that she was given. Her role in the community and in the larger world is unclear to the reader, and it is unclear to Natalie.

Her interactions with her father show disturbing and inappropriate amounts of enmeshment and a cavalier attitude towards Natalie’s autonomy. Confronted with her unhappiness, her father responds:

There is no doubt but what the class of girls you have as friends is not a representative one, but my plans for you never did include a broad education; an extremely narrow one, rather—one half, from the college, in people and surroundings; the other half, from me, in information. My ambitions for you are slowly being realized, and, even though you are unhappy, console yourself with the thought that it was part of my plan for you to be unhappy for a while.

Natalie’s relationship with her mother is even more tenuous and fraught than her relationship with her father. The first section focuses extensively on a party which her mother is hostessing, which her father has arranged, and there is a long discussion between Natalie and her mother in which her mother explains to her all of her father’s faults, and warns her against marriage. The party itself is excruciating and bizarre, with Natalie interacting with the guests and simultaneously carrying on a mental conversation with a detective who has, in her imagination, accused her of murder. And then there is the sexual assault, alluded to but unexplained, which occurs when one of the guests takes her into the woods behind her home and does something which is never described, nor really referenced again, but which hangs like a pall over the rest of the book.

Both of her parents only see her in relation to themselves, and not as an independent entity.

“It seemed that perhaps her father was trying to cure his failures in Natalie, and her mother was perhaps trying to avoid, through Natalie, doing over again those things she now believed to have been mistaken.”

In addition, Natalie’s fellow students, mostly women, largely dislike her as they jockey for social position, and at least one of her peers is involved in a sordid affair with a professor who is already married to an emotionally fragile ex-student who has grasped the brass ring (marriage, to a handsome intellectual, like Natalie’s mother. Or Shirley Jackson herself) and yet found her prize hollow, retreating into an alcoholic haze to cope. The other young women are superficial, dismissive, and occasionally even mean, but they are brashly capable of navigating a world that is causing Natalie to fall apart completely. Jackson was writing this book in 1951, while her husband was a teacher at Bennington College in Vermont, and as such she would have been intimately familiar with young women in Natalie’s position. There are references, some off-handed, some less so, about conflict between young women living in dormitories, about affairs, sometimes with professors, and suicides, and pregnancies and abortions. As the novel progresses, Natalie’s very grasp on reality seems to splinter, until, after her trip home for Thanksgiving, she is on a bus back to college , and

She wanted to sing and did so, soundlessly, her mouth against the fogged window of the bus, thinking as she sang, And when I first saw Natalie Waite, the most incredible personality of our time, the unbelievably talented, vivid, almost girlish creature—when I first saw her, she was sitting in a bus, exactly as I or you might be, and for a minute I noticed nothing of her richness . . . and then she turned and smiled at me. Now, knowing her for what she is, the most vividly talented actress (murderess? courtesan? dancer?) of our time or perhaps any time, I can see more clearly the enchanting contradictions within her—her humor, her vicious flashing temper, so easily aroused and so quickly controlled by her iron will; her world-weary cynicism (she has, after all, suffered more than perhaps any other from the stings and arrows of outrageous fortune), her magnificent mind, so full of information, of deep pockets never explored wherein lie glowing thoughts like jewels never seen . . .

The narration changes, briefly from third person to first person. Even now, looking back, I don’t know what any of this means – who is the narrator of this passage? Is he – she – real? Natalie’s imagination, again? When Natalie returns to campus, the tension ratchets up, and the book becomes almost a thriller, with midnight wanderings and a terrifying plunging through the dark Vermont woods.

Jackson was adept at plumbing the psyches of disturbed, repressed young women – Merricat, from We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and Eleanor from The Haunting of Hill House, and Natalie. This is an unsettling book, with its look backwards at the cost that society imposed on young women who didn’t fit into the roles that society prepared for them. Not a ghost story, not a murder mystery, Hangsaman is something more abstract but in some ways even more terrifying – a narration of the mental disintegration of a sensitive young woman in a society that neither makes an effort to understand her, nor cares little for her psychological well-being.