(Historical note: this originally appeared with a collection of complaints about numerous bad "supernatural fiction" stories I had to read. 'The other document" mentioned is below here. Despite being somewhat embarrassing, the footnotes have been included just so anyone who gets that far will not be left wondering what they were.)
Regarding The Haunting of Hill House: this a somewhat lengthly summary of my thoughts following a single reading. After having read it a second time, some things make more sense, but, as I stand by the statement that I should not have had to read it twice, I will leave this as it is, and discuss later findings in the other document.
The characters speak with bizarre dialogue and make jokes, that while not particularly funny, do set a different mood than I was expecting. As someone who otherwise has nothing to gain from reading such stories, the peculiar dialogue was, at first, to me, a pleasant alternative to the eloquent yet dull manorspeak of the prior century's tellings. More expectable, though, is how annoying this whimsicality becomes when strange things start happening and the characters seem psychologically unaffected by it. Three of the four, anyway. One, Eleanor, clearly appears to be growing mad, and the other three just seem to tease it, but since they are never punished for doing this, I can conclude merely that the author is a weirdo.
There's a point where Eleanor sneaks around listening to people, and none of them mention her. I took this as generating, for Eleanor, spite towards the other house dwellers, not affection for the structure. Still, Eleanor never commits acts against them, only herself. It seemed to me that if there was a mysterious evil, it was within the other three residents and not the house. I thought Theodora especially a prime candidate, for she is mentioned as having a psychic ability, and this seems to be at work even if never stated. Somewhat after half-way through the book, perhaps because the author was tiring of the way the four talked to each other, Dr. Montague's wife and some friend of hers also come to the house. They attempt to contact Hill House's spirits using a device similar to an Ouija Board (the book is recent enough that the doctor describes the thing, to the uninitiated Luke, as being like an Ouija Board), and come up with completely inept results. Except, that is, for ones which mention "Nell" --the name Theodora address Eleanor as-- and when they convey these messages to the rest of the group, they mistake Theodora for Eleanor, which I would explain by stating that Theodora had sent them psychic messages, which they mistook for the spirit, mentioning "Nell," and they associated Nell with Theodora for this reason. That made sense to me, so of course it was completely wrong.
It is very possible that my inability to be moved by supernatural fiction prevents me from noticing important, unspoken plot cues. This seems to be the case in THOHH, as at the end, I had no idea what had happened. I figured out that Eleanor's spirit "merged" with the house and whatever spirits were already there, but I didn't know why. I needed to look at some page on the internet to be reminded that throughout the story this character frequently says "journeys end in lovers meeting," and surely this refers to Eleanor coming to love the house. I guess. If you say so. Again, it was such a repetitive, absurd thing to be saying, and yet even that, I did not, in the end, subconsciously consider worth recalling.
By B of C,
for Mr. Schnepf,
on this Monday, the sixteenth day of May, 2005
Something Attempting to Resemble
Literary Analysis of The Haunting of Hill House
The Haunting of Hill House is about a small group of people attempting to find out what is wrong with Hill House, and hopefully a scientific explanation for why people think it is haunted. In the end, they are no better off than when they began, except for one, but even that much is stated in such a way that we can't really know when reading the story. If the only person made crazy by the Hill House is the one who was hopeless and half mad already, I have to ponder and reponder the validity of all the bad attitudes regarding the place.
When Eleanor reports that her own home is decorated by two stone lions, which she actually merely passed by on the highway, and that she drinks out of a cup with stars drawn on it, which she actually observed a child using in a restaurant, I thought she was being intentionally silly to poke fun at the unusual level of thought she devoted to those things after seeing them. But it seems more likely that she just did not wish to acknowledge her old life, to which she had no plans to return. It is only after being ordered to do just that that she reveals
"I haven't any apartment. 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. No home. Everything in all the world that belongs to me is in a carton in the back of my car. That's all I have, some books and things I had when I was a little girl, and a watch my mother gave me. So you see there's no place you can send me."
Certainly, I wouldn't want her to come and live with me, either, but I still think the other people should have tried harder to do something. They should know better than to put a manic person in the driver space of a running automobile. The doctor continually emphasizes the importance of Eleanor forgetting the other members of the group, but there's no reason they couldn't arrange to have someone else come and operate the vehicle. Edward Derby certainly did it enough times, and, as a confused, screaming man emerging from a forest in Maine who had difficulty locating his own car, his circumstances were far stranger. How does the doctor even know Eleanor would forget? The doctor's stubbornness on this issue seems a largely unnecessary and counterproductive precaution. Oh well; he was a doctor of philosophy, not psychology.
Eleanor lives a life of confusion because she has spent much of her life carrying out motherly tasks, such as feeding and cleaning, for her own mother. Worse, she did not receive much love in return. Similar to the case of Morella's husband, Eleanor continues to suffer ill wills even after her mother's death, so it is a life of despair, also.
All her life she had wanted to start over, and sees the venture to Hill House as that opportunity. Sure, I can understand that. Eventually she comes to believe that by imitating the suicide of a previous occupant she will become one with the house. Being "rescued" from that and then ordered to leave, to return to the life from which she wished to escape, she sees one last chance to merge with the house and takes it. As the house is known for causing madness, the others assume that the only help for Eleanor is to be away from the house. Perhaps a step in the right direction, but that they also insist that she go alone, so as to more quickly forget them and by association, the house, seemed unduly cold to me. A partial escort, at least until the house was out of view, would have been in order, I thought. Clearly they could see that Eleanor had become demented, and should not have assumed she would get over it so soon.
I concede that I do not respond well to scariness attempts (the summaries will back me up), but even someone who does would have to get frustrated when nothing which occurs in this story ever amounts to anything. The supposed terror never culminates in anything. During the first door-shaking incident, Luke and the doctor are absent. However, they easily believe the story told by the ones who were present, and experience it for themselves later. What significance to the story is it that they were both engaged at just that moment? None whatsoever. Even their curious excuse, that of chasing a dog, is not given any further mention. How did the dog get into the house, and was it sent by someone to act as a diversion? If there was no dog, what was the two's real reason for getting away?
All of the otherworldly happenings seem random and unrelated, and I'm not ever made to know better than that.
The dwellers eventually discover that the floors are slightly inclined, and walls meet at 89 or 91 degree angles. This is good, for it progresses towards an explanation for the house's off-putting quality. However, that's the only thing, and the full mystery is never solved. It's a bit like fiddling with a broken television set so you suddenly get sound, but no picture: it's more annoying than if the thing had stayed totally broken.
The whole book has an air of reality to it, in that things happen not for reasons which will ever be known, and they do not usually affect future events. That's fine, if their purpose is to distract or mislead, but these seem just to want to fill pages. I am left to make up my own reasons for things and explanations for unexplained events, and, knowing I have made them up, they do not contribute anything positive to the experience. The story seems as random and pointless as Hill House is described as being. Unfortunately, given the random, pointlessness of the story, I cannot assume that this intentionally correlates with the house. Or at least, if I do, I cannot assume that Ms. Jackson intended for me to assume that. At any rate, if I wished for reality, I wouldn't read a book.
Jack Sullivan4 writes of Shirley Jackson, who became suddenly and unexpectedly dead from a heart failure, "Her life ended like her fiction-by stopping abruptly, without climax or denouement." Sullivan seems not to mind that sort of thing as much as I do. As a reader of much of Jackson's work, he seems to appreciate the consistency. As a reader of just one book, I don't look forward to seeing more like it.
Dr. Montague believes that there is a scientific explanation for everything. Maybe the story's message is that there isn't, but it doesn't supply a non-scientific explanation either.
On page 102, after coming to "a low inlaid chess table" against which Theodora had bumped in the darkness, the doctor irritably says, in parentheses, no less, ("now I could not have overlooked that last night.") That manner of acknowledging the object suggests that some malicious force is moving things around to knock people over. However, no such stumbling again occurs.
The whole thing has a very dreamlike quality to it. Every scene has the same characters, but they vary greatly in how they act and what they mean to the situation. At one point Eleanor seems to be silently contemplating Theodora's murder, and gradually inches towards it, and then the chapter ends and suddenly the two are holding hands and laughing together. What did I miss? What I wouldn't miss, is all the talking. Eleanor has a conversation with Luke which, while reading, I honestly could not tell who was saying what. In such a case as that, clearly, whatever they're saying does not matter. Only the last comment, from Luke, "you're lucky you had a mother," seems to mean anything, and even then, only as much as the other weird things that happened. Is that hostility, or cordial envy? Maybe something like: gosh, I wish I had a lollypop right now. You're lucky you get a lollypop.
I have to wonder how valid any of the Hill-House dwellers' experiences are, since they are continually consuming brandy. The story only mentions one bottle ever, one small enough to fit inside a suitcase not described as being of abnormal size, and yet the people are always drinking it. They even wake up halfway through the night to sit at a table and, not only consume it, but hold out their glasses to receive more. Where does it all come from? Maybe the group looks forward to the random weirdness as opportunities to get drunk.
I did not really see any unifying logic at all until I read the book a second time, and I cannot fathom someone reading the book a second time if that person is not being made to write a report about it. Even then, the "evidence" does not show up until page 215, quite near the end, when Eleanor detects footsteps of an invisible being and seems to hear her name spoken by it. After this, she hears all noises in the vast house and seems to be becoming "one" with it.
If I was writing the book, how would I change Eleanor? For the most part, I wouldn't change her a bit. I would have liked to see, following her "snap," more aggression towards the other characters, rather than, or at least in addition to, the two demented, entirely introverted suicide attempts. As a victim of life in general, going to "join" Hill House without attempting any sort of revenge against those who mishandled her is not fulfilling to read about. Eleanor could have at least said something, something beyond "the house wants me to stay."
Since she did nothing, I would have liked to read the other characters' reactions. Did they feel guilt, maybe thinking they were to blame? Did they feel sadness, sad to see their sort-of-friend die like that? Were they relieved be rid of such an unstable guest? Were they angry at having to clean up the mess? The book only lets me know that they continued their lives afterwards as if they had never been to the house at all. The only specific bit of information given is another dissatisfying one, that the doctor's article detailing the stay at Hill House was badly received, coming and going utterly without impact, despite the fact that one of the researchers died in the process.
It does me no good if the lost, confused person only triumphs in a way not evident to other characters. And it does me no good if I don't know what was evident to them. If I drove myself into a tree in such a way as to be killed from it, I couldn't be awake to find out. I would have at least liked to know here.
Andrew Larson3 seems to mostly feel as I do. However, as his review spans not even two paragraphs, and he is or was apparently a high-school student at the time of his saying so, I have no reason to believe that his words are more valid than my own, which mostly aren't at all.
There was, an, apparently, much hated, film titled The Haunting released in 1999 based on the book, but unfortunately it goes so far in being obvious5 that there was no possible way it could have turned out well. I don't think I would have liked it, either. I almost have to suspect, had it not cost millions of dollars to put together, that it was only made so people would say, "gosh, wasn't the book so much better?"
It has been said that The Haunting of Hill House is the best novel of its type, whatever that be, since Turn of the Screw1. That seems sensible to me, as I didn't like that book either.
The very first sentence about Luke Sanderson indicates that he is "a liar and a thief," though he never speaks a deceitful untruth or runs off with an object belonging to another, so I wonder why such a point was made at all, let alone as to be a reader's first impression of the character. I suspect Jackson initially intended for Luke to be a liar and a thief, and then forgot about it later, because it is not brought up again.
This is of minor importance, but it bothers me that the character named "Mrs. Dudley" is married to a character known only as "Dudley." He is never, at any point, addressed as, or referred to as "Mr. Dudley" However, something written in 1959 would specifically point out any instance of a woman not changing her last name with a marriage, assuming that was even legal back then, so I must reason that Dudley's last name is Dudley also. I wonder if this book influenced Mrs. Mario's decision to name her two sons Luigi and Mario.
People who write about the book willingly seem truly to enjoy it, even on an initial go through it. They seem to actually relish the vagueness which so irritates me. Clearly, I am destined not only to not like this book, but all stories like it as well, and I'll gain no appreciation by further dealing with them, and I'm glad to know it. I'd hate to have convinced me, "oh, if I just read all this miserious tripe I'll possibly start to like it halfway through," because if it's going to happen at all, it's going to have happened before that.
I don't want evidence of ghosts or laughing wooden cherubs2, but I want something to make me think I didn't waste the six hours of reading that twice. I would like something in the story to hold it up in the event it fails to frighten me. Lord of the Flies, supposedly wholly saturated with symbolism, despite my failure to interpret any of it, was still fairly interesting. It was possible to understand most of the things that happened. I think the comparison of these two books is important, because the first time I read that, I was demanded to explain the symbolism in every chapter, and was chastised for reading "ahead," and had an entirely awful experience with it. With that in mind, predisposed to despise it the second time, I yet did not. By contrast, this I was predisposed to like, because I had just finished Turn of the Screw (and let that be my last reference to it for a very long time), which had made me want to die, yet I found minimal relief in the end.
1 Bernice Murphy for The Literary Encyclopedia at www.LitEncyc.com, although other people also say that.
2 "Shrew and Catness," Watch it in the Dark, http://www.chicklit.com/paperjam/paperjam15_page7.html
3 Andrew Larson, no title given, http://www.newtrier.k12.il.us/library/reviewslist/haunting_of_hill_house.htm
4 by Jack Sullivan, Supernatural Fiction Writers, Vol. 2, Pages 1031-1036, Copyright 1985, Charles Scribner's Sons
(this page had its own reference data, which is good, because I haven't been able to find it after the first time)
5 Will Laughlin, De Bonting of Hill House, www.braineater.com/haunting99.html