Monday, January 19, 2015

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality

I was looking for Halloween reads last October and Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House came up again and again. I've read her short story "The Lottery" (and loved it) and figured I need to try one of her full length novels. I've heard only good things about Hill House while We Have Always Lived in the Castle has gotten some mixed reviews, so I decided Hill House is where I should start.

My copy, part of the Penguin Horror Series, included a decently long intro on horror overall by Guillermo Del Toro and now, I sort of want to read an entire book about the history of horror fiction by him. Maybe he could take some time off from directing to expand this entry out into a full book, pleaseandthankyou. I don't think it's true to say that the intro was better than Jackson's story, but the intro has stuck with me in a way that the story hasn't. Before I get into it, a quick summary.

Hill House is a supposedly haunted mansion. Dr. Montague is a professor investigating paranormal activities and he rents the house for the summer in the hopes of finding something. He invites a number of people who have experienced paranormal events to come and stay with him. Naturally, most people ignore his letters, with the exception of two women: Eleanor, a quiet woman who has spend the last several years taking care of her invalid mother and more recently dominated by her sister and her sister's family, and Theo, an artiste. Luke, heir to the mansion, is also going to hang out with them. And then there are the super creepy caretakers Mr. and Mrs. Dudley who refuse to stay in the house at night and discourage the people from coming in and also might be robots.

There are creepy moments in the book. Doors won't stay open, regardless of it they're propped open or not. There's a strange voice and knocking noises and seems to be SOMETHING trying to get into the guests' rooms. It's never explicit what's actually happening. Is there something out there? Is this all in the characters' heads? Maybe just Eleanor's?

The haunting moments were scary. The fact that you're never really sure what's happening amps up the fear. But I had trouble with the characters. Mostly because I never fully believed them. We got some good background on Eleanor in the beginning and I thought maybe we'd spend more time fleshing the characters out. Or maybe not even fleshed out. I would have been fine if maybe we just stick with Eleanor and never really learn more about the other characters because we're dealing with Eleanor and how she perceives them. But the interactions between the characters never read as true. Mrs. Dudley can be stilted and sound like she's just reciting from a script. That's her thing. But the interactions between Dr. Montague, Luke, Theo, and even Eleanor should have seemed more natural.

Ultimately, the story was a bust for me. There were some good moments and it's cited so often as an ultimate haunted house story, so there's something there. But in the end, I preferred the intro (and highlighted more lines there) than the story itself.

But hey, check out these quotes from that intro!
To learn what we fear is to learn who we are. 
The tragedy in Poe's world is not the darkness in which we wallow but the fact that we once contemplated heaven. 
This is perhaps one of the most veiled and pervasive horrors in Jackson's fiction: We are always alone.

GIF rating:

Title quote from page 3.

Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. Penguin Classic, 2006. Originally published 1959. Kindle.