Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Haunting of Hill House

One of the unique things about my academic program is that it forces me to revisit my beloved genre with fresh eyes. Most horror fans are voracious devourers of their medium and many of the books and movies I'm assigned to read are works I've already visited in the past. There is a world of difference between being passively engaged in a book and being actively engaged in trying to autopsying the great works of horror and laying their guts open for the world to see.

Or, in less bullshitty falutin' terms, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House kicked my ass.

I'm writing a haunted house novel and it sucks because every time I read the prologue of Hill House, I say to myself "That's it. There's no point in writing another haunted house story. How the hell do you write an introduction that sets a mood of eerie, evocative dread that holds a candle to the subtle, imaginative menace of '....and whatever walked there, walked alone.'"

That shit is creeeeepy. We don't meet a specific, sentient menace. We don't have the dusty bones of Hugh Crain greeting the reader, announcing to us that he will be battering at the sanity of poor, doomed Eleanor. Hill House itself is not sane. The size, the vast interiors and the unnatural angles of the home reminded me of a Lovecraftian influence. I tend to hate stories where things have obvious origins and solutions. I feel horror works best with ambiguity, otherwise it becomes puzzle boxes you can open, selfish entities you can strike petty deals with.

I first read The Haunting of Hill House in my early teens, after Stephen King lavished great praise on it in Danse Macabre. People talked about its intense terror and the lurid and shocking underpinnings of lesbianism in the narrative, which attracted 14-year-old me like a pubescent fly to honey. I finished it, but it was a slog. I had gotten used to books with raised lettering and gory pictures on the cover. Hill House by comparison is understated and elegant. It depends on a person sitting alone in a parlor somewhere allowing the book to seduce them.

There were no decapitations by lion statue. There were no hot lesbian make out sessions between Eleanor and Theo. There was none of the lurid, juicy good stuff I loved in my other books. There was just a strange old house and the poor sucker who may or may not have deluded herself into taking her own life. It's all very gracious and subtle, strangely gentile, and I feel Hill House is the template that modern haunted house stories almost ceaselessly follow.

One of the more interesting things that struck me while I was rereading Hill House is how much Eleanor reminded me of Wendy Torrance in Stanley Kubrick's interpretation of The Shining. I never quite bought that the novel's version of the character would have stayed with the self-loathing bully of a husband she found herself with, but the movie's version gave Wendy a strong sense of beaten-down passivity. She exists in a state of perpetual subservience to her husband's whims and makes excuses for his monstrous behavior.

Eleanor Vance struck me as someone desperately waiting for life to give her permission to being. People love harping on Theo's lesbianism, but I think the character appealed more to Eleanor because she was everything that Eleanor wasn't; free, independent, worldly, and confident. Eleanor pushed away from her dickish family in a fairly petty act of independence and her taste of freedom opened the door to a horrible seduction that lead to her doom.

Sure, the ending is an unhappy ending. I guess. Jack Torrance freezing in the snow is an unhappy ending. But ultimately both characters didn't belong in the world. One was too meek, the other too angry. Maybe it's a happy ending. Maybe they were both always ghosts, waiting for a real house to haunt.

Funny story about reading Hill House.

Unlike many horror fans, I'm a big old chicken. Always have been, always will be. I have a much higher tolerance for scares than a casual fan due to sheer overwhelming exposure, but it's not that hard to freak me out to the point where I'm awake at 4AM, staring up at the ceiling, trying not to over-imagine the causes of the noises in my nasty Brooklyn apartment. Because of this, I tend not to take my horror in optimal conditions. I read horror books on trains, watch horror movies at party events, and I get plenty drunk right before I stagger my way through haunted house theme parks (I once puked in a Leatherface set piece in a haunted house attraction in Los Angeles, but that's a story for another time.)

Anyway, I decided to change that up with Hill House. My only memories of it were the memories of a tasteless and stupid boy and I knew there was nothing particularly freaky or scary about it. So I decided to read the book on it's own terms. I kept a copy on my bed stand next to my nightlight and I read twenty pages or so a night before bed. Sitting in the dark, reading a quiet little book in a quiet little space, the story started getting to me.

I live in a party apartment in Brooklyn and we have drunk hipster loudmouths coming and going at all hours of the night. About a week ago, when I was finishing the book, I was laying down to sleep and my roommate's FWB started BANGING on the door. I immediately flashed back to the poor mousy Eleanor and I just about shot out of bed in sheer delightful terror.

The point of this story, aside from the fact that Williamsburg American Apparel zombies should stay away from cocaine and my front door, is that it's tremendously important to take horror stories in the correct context. If I simply read it every day on the subway I would have developed an intellectual appreciation for the craftsmanship of Shirley Jackson's writing, but the emotional impact of it would have been lost to me. Horror is meant for the dark. Keep it there.


Cin Ferguson said...

Great posting Joe, and really interesting about your perspective and sentiments on horror. I have to say I was not a fan of THoHH and Shirley Jackson did not amaze me. The most impressive part of the novel for me was the personification of the House. It was the best character in the whole story! I loved your close encounter account (or what you believed to be for a second) at the end though, and your descriptions at the end were wonderful. Even better your visual of the cocaine zombies. Most excellent! :)

Rhonda JJ said...

Loved your post, Joe. I love what you say about Eleanor and agree that she never did belong in this world anyway because of her need to gain permission for existing. And I'm a big chicken, too, though I devour horror novels and movies. I think that people like us can appreciate these things from a different angle: that of, "Yes, this is frightening."

Scott A. Johnson said...

Nicely put. I too have had the whole "why do I bother" when writing a haunted house story because of stories like The Haunting that capture the mood so perfectly. While I don't think we can do "better" exactly, we at least strive to do "different."