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 80 years and might for 80 more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
So starts The Haunting of Hill House, one of the acknowledged classics of the ghost story genre. And after so striking an opening, how could I not continue?
Given my love of creepy ghost stories, I really don’t know why it has taken me so long to get round to this this one,. I had, of course, seen the marvellous film version from 1963 directed by Robert Wise, as well as, I’m sorry to say, the predictably inept modern remake.
The problem usually with ghost stories of novel length is that the sense of supernatural terror cannot really be maintained over long stretches: it is so fragile a state of mind that the slightest intrusion of reality shatters it. As a consequence, the author generally has to pad the thing out, and the padding usually isn’t very interesting; or, worse, it detracts from the element of the supernatural. (I thought this was very much the case with the most recent example of this genre that I read, The Ghost Writer, which is actually rather fine once you get past the padding.) But Shirley Jackson avoids this issue by making this essentially a novel about a mental disintegration, and relating the supernatural elements to this central theme.
The story, such as it is is slight, and the set-up may be regarded as a bit hackneyed. Hill House is regarded as a haunted house: it has an evil history, and currently lies unoccupied. And here, Dr Montague, anthropologist, conducts an experiment in psychic phenomena. And to do so, he invites to Hill House three strangers – one who has telepathic powers; another who has telekinetic powers; and a third who is a relative of the owner, and is the house’s future owner. These four strangers assemble, and then, weird things start to happen. So far, so familiar: but the plot is never in itself an important element, I feel, in a ghost story. The ghost story is,it seems to me, a somewhat conservative genre: its impact depends not on any innovation, but in doing estalished things well. What matters – what the work must be judged on – is not the plot, as such, but how frightening the author can make it.
The principal character, Eleanor Vance, has been invited to the experiment because of her apparent powers of telekinesis – powers that she herself is not aware of. She is in a state of mental turmoil to begin with, and what she encounters in Hill House could well be emanations of her own mental state. This is not to suggest that the supernatural is illusory: other characters quite explicitly experience the supernatural. But Eleanor possibly does have telekinetic powers, and it is entirely possible that it is she who, albeit unconsciously, is the true source of the haunting. Shirley Jackson very skilfully integrates together a psychological study, and a creepy ghost story, but balancing the two elements does not become an issue, as the two are effectively the one and the same: as the ghostly incidents (although no ghost is ever actually seen) intensify, and become ever more harrowing, so Eleanor’s vulnerable mind becomes increasingly unhinged, as she moves from initial terror to acceptance, and even happiness, and by the end becomes convinced that the house itself is a conscious entity, and that, what is more, the house wants her: for the one and only time in her life, she is wanted.
Eleanor’s mind is the only one the author allows herself to enter. As a consequence, we don’t find very coherent pictures of the other characters, because Eleanor herself find them difficult to understand. Particularly difficult to understand is the other lady invited to the experiment – Theodora, who, it is strongly suggested, is lesbian: at times, Theo appears to Eleanor to be sisterly and affectionate; at other times, cruel and mean. But over the few days over which the story is set, all these characters become, for Eleanor, less significant: what matters is the house itself. Whatever these other people may or may not want, this house, insane, wants her, wants Eleanor. And she is determined to stay.
Quite frequently, the ending is the weakest part of a ghost story, for at the end, issues need to be resolved, and resolution usually requires a revelation in terms of plot; and that detracts from the sense of mystery that is ideally required by the ghost story. But here, the ending – which, to judge from various internet “reviews”, many find disappointing – seems to me perfectly judged: it is a resolution of what had gone before, and seems to me rather shocking. It does not detract in any way from the sense of fear that has so expertly been generated.
I don’t know that I should recommend this book to those who don’t care for the genre. I have always loved the creepy ghost story, so this was right up my street, as they say, but I do know there are those who find the genre eminently resistible, and do not find much sense of terror in the thought of what may be lurking unseen in the shadows. And, sadly, there are those also whose sensibilities in these matters are so coarsened by modern horror films that they appear to respond only to the explicit. What frightens one seems to be as unpredictably subjective as what makes one laugh. So I had better restrict myself to saying that this frightened me. And it frightened me consistently, right up to that ending. There is no better recommendation than that for a ghost story.