One of the great things about this program is the opportunity to read classics that, for whatever reason, I never made time for previously. So it is with The Haunting of Hill House. I love a good ghost story, but I’ve had considerable trouble finding Western tales that impact me the way Asian horror films or certain video games have. Fortunately the psychological horror of “Hill House” has helped to fill that void. Against the backdrop of a haunted house, Shirley Jackson paints an eerie portrait of a mental breakdown.
“Journeys end in lovers meeting,” Eleanor Vance frequently tells herself. It is evident early on, however, that the “lover” at the end of her journey to Hill House will not be Luke, the eventual heir of the house, nor even Theodora (and, while Jackson denied any sexuality in her work, the lesbian undertones are quite daring for 1959), but Hill House itself. It is a place for which she has been waiting her whole life, we are told, but not because it will at last grant her the freedom she seeks. Reflected in its darkness and its chaotic design is Eleanor’s own tormented mind; that the reader grasps this so early on is not a flaw on Jackson’s part; rather, it makes Eleanor’s descent into madness all the more poignant, for she is, on some level, as aware of it as the reader.
“Perhaps it has us now, this house, perhaps it will not let us go,” Eleanor thinks on their first night. The house, eager for a broken and unwanted soul like Eleanor to walk its halls again, entreats her to recognize that she is home after all, in the one place she has always belonged: “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME ELEANOR” (114), the writing on the walls plead. While ghostly activity is experienced by all four of the house’s temporary residents, it is clear that Eleanor herself, carrying so much repressed anger toward her family and her life, fuels the haunting (after all, she admits that she can hear everything in the house, and that the noises are coming from inside her head), much as she fueled the childhood poltergeist activity. Because Theo represents the woman Eleanor wants to–but never will–be, Eleanor’s bond with her turns particularly vicious. Eleanor has never been a complete person, and what little she possesses of her own identity is chipped away even further when she is forced to share her things with Theo; she thinks, “…I would like to batter her with rocks” (117), just as she battered her family home with rocks. Her rage, completely out of proportion to Theo’s comments upon discovering her ruined clothes, continues to grow: “I would like to watch her dying” (117), she thinks with a smile. And when she is frightened that night by the voices in Theo’s abandoned room, it is not Theo in whom she finds comfort, but the phantom hand of the house itself.
After this event, the deterioration of Eleanor’s sense of self becomes painfully evident. To the horror of her companions, after the wall writing has appeared for the second time, she speaks of seeing herself as two separate and conflicting entities, and that she could end it if she just surrendered. On her final night she gives in at last, running through the halls and banging on the doors just as the “ghost” has done twice before; where the house was cold and hard before, it now embraces her in warmth and softness. “I am home, I am home” (171), she thinks. Even when she is understandably forced to leave the next morning (neither wanted nor needed, as always–Theo’s own clothes are just fine now), she knows the house will not let her go–and she will not allow herself to leave. What little was left of “Eleanor” seems to have vanished, as she perceives only one tragic course of action left to her–to become a permanent resident of Hill House, the only place she was ever wanted, she must kill herself. And yet, in a heartbreaking twist as she plows her car into a tree, the spell of Hill House is broken: “…she thought clearly, Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Why don’t they stop me” (182)? To live would be to face possession by Hill House, or to return to what could barely be called a life in her sister’s home; either way, forever defined by someone–or something–else. Even at the moment of impending death, she wants someone else to act on her behalf. But to actually die grants her the autonomy she has never before experienced. Freedom always comes with a price.
I enjoyed this book much more than I expected to. Jackson had a great talent for building suspense while keeping most of the horror “off-camera.” Eleanor’s descent into madness–and she did not have far to fall–is both creepy and moving. This is the kind of horror that I hope will regain popularity as time goes on.
Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. New York: The Penguin Group, 1959, 1984, 2006.