Friday, October 28, 2016

Adventure classics -- Believe in ghosts to write their story

The Haunting of Hill House

by Shirley Jackson
"No one can get into a novel about a haunted house without hitting the subject of reality head-on;" Shirley Jackson said about the writing of her acclaimed ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House. "Either I have to believe in ghosts, which I do, or I have to write another kind of novel altogether."

Shirley Jackson
In Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson, biographer Judy Oppenheimer treats her belief seriously. Jackson she writes, had “the ability to see beyond reality. . . she heard conversations, even music, that no one else heard; she saw faces no one else could see. She was acutely aware, even from childhood, that there were other very different realities as true as the one her family and neighbors lived in, existing simultaneously, perhaps only a half-turn away.”

Her belief proved strangely convincing, and not only to Oppenheimer. Jackson’s sister-in-law, Bunny Hyman, recalled an incident once in which the two women noticed a red liquid seeping from a kitchen cabinet. When at last someone dared open the cabinet, they found a spilled bottle of red wine.

“Nowhere else,” as Hyman recalled, “would you assume that a trickle of red liquid had to be blood. At Shirley’s house, you not only assumed – you almost expected it.”

Despite her paranormal leanings and often disturbing stories such as her widely anthologized “The Lottery,” it took the witch trial-steeped atmosphere of rural New England to prompt the writing of an actual ghost story. Having made up her mind, Jackson began researching the subject eagerly. She searched for pictures of old houses, looking for those that depicted the “vile. . . diseased” appearance she had in mind for her fictional Hill House, and was delighted to find one she heard was built by her own architect great-grandfather.

1963 film version
No tenant since the death of the original owner’s family has stayed more than a few days in Hill House. It’s the sort of place scholarly paranormal researcher Dr. John Montague dreams about. And he’s gathered a group of psychic researchers to help him: Eleanor Vance, who once experienced a poltergeist episode; a self-proclaimed psychic who uses only the name Theodora; and a family member of the house’s current owner. Montague “had taken his degree in anthropology,” Jackson writes in Hill House, hoping that field would be the closest “to his true vocation, the analysis of supernatural manifestations.”

Perhaps Jackson, whose husband was a college professor, also found satisfaction in giving the leader of her band of investigators a scholarly, academic standing. And perhaps only a writer with architectural ancestors could imagine a house as subtly bad as Hill House.

The Victorian mansion on a wooded estate (in a region unnamed but clearly New England) was designed by its builder without right angles. This peculiarity is – at least in part – what gives Hill House its unsettling air. The tower library, where a former owner hanged herself, is invisible from the bedroom windows of its guests. The interior rooms, many lacking windows, are so oddly arranged guests need a map to find their way around. And then there are the doors, which resolutely shut themselves whenever they are opened.

But those aren't the worst of Hill House’s peculiarities. Between locked gates and a surly caretaker (husband of the equally surly housekeeper/cook), the guests had barely been able to get into the grounds of Hill House. Leaving will be harder; after dark impossible.

“Hill House has a reputation for insistent hospitality,” Montague tells the group. “The last person who tried to leave Hill House in darkness . . . was killed at the turn in the driveway, where his horse bolted and crushed him against the big tree.”

Eleanor Vance is at first as shaken as the rest. But something in the house calls to her. As a child, her home was repeatedly pelleted by stones in a possible poltergeist attack. Now, in Hill House, she attracts other acts of vandalism – mysterious writings that appear on the walls, a shower of blood that drenches Theodora’s clothes, insistent poundings on the (fortunately) closed doors.

Is she the innocent focus of poltergeist attacks? Or is she committing the acts herself, consciously or not? Or is it something else indeed? As Eleanor tells the others, “I could say. . . ‘All three of you are in my imagination; none of this is real.’”

“If I thought you could really believe that,” Montague says, “I would turn you out of Hill House. . . You would be venturing far too close to the state of mind which would welcome the perils of Hill House.”

And when Eleanor at last follows a voice only she can hear up the half-ruined stairs of the library’s tower, Montague decides he must expel her from the group, even against her wishes. But is Hill House willing to let her leave?

Stephen King has called The Haunting of Hill House one of the greatest horror novels of all time. It’s widely available on Amazon, if not in a local library, where I found my copy. This Halloween, consider curling up with a copy. Just be sure to close the doors.

(Next Friday, Adventure classics begins a November of fantasy with the Brothers Grimm tale, “The Fisherman and his Wife.”)

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