Hello and Hallo-welcome to a surprise twist on our Tuesday theme–it’s Textual Analysis Tuesday, and you join your blogger, Andy, as he takes a little trip to a familiar house.
In the list of places you wouldn’t want to spend the night, Shirley Jackson’s Hill House has got to be near the top of the list. Probably the greatest ghost story ever written, The Haunting of Hill House is not for the faint-hearted. No ghouls wander the halls rattling chains in a white sheet. There’s no elaborate backstory of lost love or evil within, no reason for a haunting given. There’s just old tragedy, and cold spots, and banging on the walls and doors, and a slow prising open of psychological wounds. In the night. In the dark.
The title is intentionally misleading: the house may not be haunted, per se. It can be the subject of the title, and not the object. That tricky little of may also be possessive: the haunting belongs to Hill House, but not something it does.
The fact that Shirley Jackson managed to pack that much ambiguity into five words speaks volumes about the rest of the novel. A dozen people can read this book and come to different conclusions about what, precisely has happened. One thing is clear, though. There’s something deeply wrong with Hill House:
“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; 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.”
The opening paragraph of the novel does so much in such a short space of time that anyone who writes for a living must regard it with a certain amount of awe. Hill House is “not sane”, but the implication is that it is a live organism. It exists under “conditions of absolute reality” and does not dream: it does not sleep. It’s isolated; it owns the hills that surround it, and it has agency in holding in darkness. It is, at least in some way, conscious. It is well-built; neither dilapidated or ruined by time, and will outlive almost everyone who reads the passage. It is a silent, lonely place, which very subtly implies that not even mice or other pests go near the empty house. And of course, whatever walks there does so silently, without opening any of the doors.
The fact that this paragraph also closes the novel adds a further ambiguity to the titular haunting. To a creature such as Hill House, what would four investigators (who remember don’t exist “under conditions of absolute reality”) staying for a few days be perceived as if not a haunting?
“I am like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster, she thought, and the monster feels my tiny little movements inside”
What we’re missing so far is a physical description, and that’s what we would expect when or protagonist first sees Hill House. Instead we get this:
“No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because 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.”
Again, there’s the idea that the house is always awake, always “not sane”; note the use of the word “maniac” instead of “manic”. It looks like “a place of despair”, and worse, it looks back at you. Houses are very rarely described this way; and the common word we do use, ugly, is never once mentioned. In some ways that makes the house even stranger: it may not even be ugly, but it is wrong.
That’s not to say as a building that Hill House isn’t strange.
“[Eleanor’s bedroom] 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 tolerable length”
This, as Dr Montague explains later, is entirely intentional:
“Every angle is slightly wrong. Hugh Crain must have detested other people and their sensible squared-away houses, because he made his house to suit his mind. Angles which you assume are the right angles you are accustomed to, and have every right to expect are true, are actually a fraction of a degree off in one direction or another”.
The characters frequently get lost, and doors don’t lead where they expect them to. In addition, the doors are all hung to swing closed on their own if they are not propped open, and several times in the novel the doors are found shut again despite them being propped open. Mrs Dudley the housekeeper is assumed to have shut them, but then again, nobody ever asks her. A grim irony is made from the third sentence of the opening paragraph of the novel, a sentence that at face value seemed almost superfluous:
“Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut.”
What at first seems like alliteration is instead yet another insight into the wrongness of Hill House. Everything it says is literally true, and nothing else. Walls are upright but meet at strange angles, bricks meet neatly but not straight on, floors are firm but may not be level, and the doors are shut because they are designed that way. Of course, it is sensible to shut doors in a large house, but that’s not the only implication. The doors of the house shutting is both rational and reasonable: the rest of the house is neither.
This is a house that, by its very design, messes with the occupants very sense of reality. Here we have something that Lovecraft grasped towards in his writings about ‘non-euclidian geometry’ and ‘strange angles’, most famously in The Call of Cthulhu and Dreams in the Witch House. The result, according to modern psychological studies, is akin to being on a low level acid trip or another dissociative drug, in that once our minds becomes ever so slightly uncoupled from the ‘real world’, our other senses start to behave oddly as well:
“‘Could it be,’ [Luke] asked the doctor, ‘that what people have been assuming were supernatural manifestations were really only the result of a slight loss of balance in the people live here?’”
And at another point Dr Montague remarks:
“We have grown to trust blindly in our senses of balance and reason, and I can see where the mind might fight wildly to preserve its own familiar stable patterns against all evidence that it was leaning sideways.”
It is a grim irony that Hill House exists under conditions of absolute reality, while destroying the occupants’ sense of it. Then again, if it is less than absolute, how real is real?
Of course, the novel plays out to its tragic conclusion, but what has actually occurred is left up to the reader to decide. The house may just be a house after all, a place with a tragic history with a new chapter added. Poor Eleanor was already disturbed when she came to Hill House, and may have been far closer to the edge than anyone realises. And as for the strange noises and the cold spots and the odd hallucinations? Well, we all see things that aren’t there, especially in such a strange, old building after all. In the night. In the dark.
But then again, Hill House is intact at the end, in its hills, never sleeping, never dreaming. A veneer of plausible deniability does not disguise its evil face, and Eleanor still died in its grounds, either possessed by the house or her own delusions. And as Jackson’s masterpiece concludes with a reprise of its opening paragraph, a final, terrifying thought comes to mind.
Why did she specify live organisms?