Friday, October 21, 2016

Adventure classics – What’s haunting the old mansion?

The Haunting of Hill House

by Shirley Jackson

What in the world – or out of it – is wrong with Hill House? The Victorian-age mansion was designed by its original owner as a gift for his wife, a place to raise their two young daughters in the bucolic New England countryside that appears to be the setting for some of author Shirley Jackson’s most famous stories. But the wife was killed in a horrific accident before setting foot in the house, the daughters were subjected to bizarre attentions from their father, and the family died out, leaving Hill House the subject of unsavory stories.

image: wikimedia commons
In Jackson’s 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill Housemodern-day investigator of the paranormal, Dr. John Montague, has plans for a scrupulously scientific investigation of the house’s strange phenomena. To that end, he rents the house for the summer from its present owner and invites a dozen people who have experienced various forms of psychic activity to spend the summer documenting their experiences at Hill House.

On the face of it, who wouldn’t jump at a chance to spend a vacation at “a comfortable country house, old, but perfectly equipped with pumping, electricity, central heating, and clean mattresses,” Dr. Montague reasons. (Not to mention a housekeeper who, if surly, is a talented cook.)

He receives four replies, the other eight candidates having failed to reply, or possibly even – given the nature of psychic activities -- “never having existed at all.” An additional two of those who reply never show up. Hill House’s landlady persuades Montague to add her ne’er-do-well and dubiously honest nephew to the house party, which will otherwise only consist of two ill-assorted women: put-upon spinster Eleanor Vance and a flighty, possibly lesbian, self-professed psychic who goes by the name of Theodora.
Shirley Jackson

Theodora’s psychic credentials include a better than chance performance of ESP in Montague’s laboratory. Eleanor Vance has been invited to Hill House because she was the subject as a child of a poltergeist-like incident (although Montague informs Eleanor calmly that poltergeists “are rock-bottom on the supernatural social scale; they are destructive, but mindless and will-less; they are merely undirected force.”) He will come to regret those words.

Eleanor had at first been overjoyed at the invitation to Hill House. In her early thirties, she has spent most of her life caring for her abusive invalid mother. Now her mother has died, leaving her free for the first time.

“During the whole underside of her life, ever since her first memory, Eleanor had been waiting for something like Hill House. Caring for her mother, lifting a cross old lady from her chair to her bed, setting out endless little trays of soup and oatmeal, steeling herself to the filthy laundry, Eleanor had held fast to the belief that someday something would happen.”

If only leaving her old life and habits could be as simple as taking a daylong jaunt from the city to the site of Hill House. “She turned her car onto the last stretch of straight drive leading her directly, face to face, to Hill House. . . and sat, staring. The house was vile. She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.”

But while readers are screaming, Don't go in there, she does, met by the daunting housekeeper/cook Mrs. Dudley, who insists on leaving before nightfall. There will be no one to help the visitors in the dark, she tells Eleanor.

"Eleanor almost giggled, thinking of herself calling, 'Oh, Mrs. Dudley, I need your help in the dark,' and then she shivered."

(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues an October of Halloween horror with Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.)