Shirley Jackson - The Haunting Of Hill House - Episode 1 - Meet The Author And The Personal Issues That Created One Of The Best Horror Genre Books Of All Time!
Shirley Jackson - The Haunting Of Hill House - Episode 1 - MeetThe Author And The Personal Issues That Created One Of The Best Horror Genre Books Of All Time!
`Hi, I’m Christy Shriver and we’re here to discuss books that have changed the world and have changed us.
And I’m Garry Shriver and this is the How to Love Lit Podcast. If you are listening to this in real time, we are well into the month of October and in the United States, the month of October means Halloween. Halloween, as we’ve discussed before, is not Christy’s favorite holiday. Christy, why is that?
Because it’s horrifying. It’s about death. It’s about being scared. It’s about demons. I don’t understand why we’re celebrating these things.
And yet, I have seen you dress up as Wilma Flintstone; answer a door bell to a slew of terrifyingly dressed children, hand out candy and enjoy every minute of it. For those of you who live in other parts of the world- that is what we do here in the United States on October 31st. My son, Ben, and his wife Rachel live in a part of Memphis which is particularly serious about Halloween, so we, if we can, love to go down there on Halloween and get in on the party.
That’s true- and it is wild. They have a neighbor whose yard literally looks like the set of a horror movie with graves, and ghosts and witches and everything. It spooks me, but on the other hand, I do love dressing up, and I love seeing all the kids dress up. That part I’m cool with.
And yet, here we are reading a classic work described as Female Gothic or horror fiction- the work of the celebrated Shirley Jackson, perhaps her most famous novel The Haunting of Hill House.
True. But I will say that Literary Horror is slightly different than Nightmare on Elm street. Here’s a little story about myself, so I had never watched a horror movie growing up. My mother didn’t allow it in our home, and back then these movies were rated R and the people at movie theaters really policed that sort of thing- so if you were a young child, obviously you could watch a rated R movie, but they didn’t make it easy for you. Well, anyway, when I was a sophomore in high school, this little school that I attended at the time took an overnight trip out of town to hike up this mountain, Pico da Bandeira. After the hike, somebody pulled out the VHS of this move and we were going to watch it (I’m pretty sure it was a bootleg). Anyway, I was so excited- most everyone in Brazil loves horror movies and Nightmare on Elmstreet was one of the most populat at the time.
Well, how did that go for you?
Not well, I’m not sure I got through 15 minutes. I spent the rest of the night under the covers and with my hands in my ears. I didn’t even want to hear it.
HA!! Well, what I find fascinating about Literary fiction is that it’s scary for all kinds of different reasons, not the idea of someone jumping out and stabbing an unsuspecting girl.
Exactly. It’s not some obvious caricature of a gore covered mummy walking around with a hatchet that defines it. It’s metaphorical; it’s about the cost of seduction; it’s about psychological disorders and it’s very much about anxiety.
Well, you know I love it when we get psychological. One thing I found interesting, and this is coming from the perspective that we just did an entire series kind of around women’s issue with A Doll’s House, but I expected Shirley Jackson’s work to be more feminist than it is. Also, the book has all this mother/daughter stuff in it. I wasn’t expecting that.
Yes- it very much has everything to do with mother/daughter relationships. That motif starts on the first page and never lets up. I got tired of counting mother references, and I never found an article that did the math, but there are reference to mothers endlessly- and something that drew my immediate attention- especially the first time Eleanor wakes up terrified in the middle the night yelling for her mother. But that is just one way of looking at the book- although that’s a great place to start and where we will start our discussion today as we attempt to make it all the way through chapter 1 of the book. But in a more general sense, what Jackson was looking at was this imbalance of power that can exist in relationships between any two people. She wants to express the seduction and betrayal of the powerless by the powerful. She expresses how one person uses the power in the relationship basically to crush another person. And unfortunately, she understood this problem so well because it was her entire life story. She had that experience with her mother, and then she turned around and had it again with her husband, and really she had it within the community at large of the 1950s.
And, of course, being written in the 1950s, many women of her generation quickly related to it. In fact, in some ways, it reminds me a little bit of that very famous work by Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, that became so important in American history but wasn’t even going to be written for another ten years.
Yeah, I’ve heard of that book, but honestly, I don’t know much about it. What is the premise and why does it connect, in your mind to Shirley Jackson.
Well, I’ll be upfront and tell you I have never read the book, so I’m speaking from second hand knowledge. But, what I know about it from teaching and studying history is the impact it had on American culture because of the power of the argument Friedan makes in the book.
First of all I would like to point out she’s interviewing women that attended Smith College, which is a very well to do private school in Massachusetts. survey sample was not very scientific
Friedan, at her 15th college reunion, took a survey from her fellow colleagues, about how they felt about their lives. The basic premise of her book is that society had created a myth that women were most fulfilled if they were taking care of children, staying at home, supporting their husbands, and staying away from politics and business. In the book, she claims that entire worldview for women is a myth- at least for many women. I will never assume to speak for women and I certainly won’t speak for all women. But Friedan will, and she went after the 1950s stereotypical Leave it To Beaver kind of mom that had been the socially accepted lifestyle. She said many women were absolutely miserable. She claimed that society’s pressure on women for women to succumb to what amounted to in many cases mindnumbing non-stimulating existences was causing depression. She famously said it was a “problem that has no name”. And whether you want to challenge her or agree with her, you have to respect that her idea absolutely resonated across America and really the entire world. Her book was a best seller, selling over 3 million in her lifetime and has been translated into at least a dozen major languages around the world. Many textbooks credit Friedan for sparking the second wave of feminism that was a key feature of the 60s, the kind of thing we see portrayed in movies like Forrest Gump in the character of Jenny. This women’s rights movement was not interested in voting rights; it was moving forward to the next level. It was pushing for workplace equality, birth control, abortion rights, breaking the glass ceiling in academia and business. Where I see it aligning with Jackson, who came much earlier, is that this book, The Haunting of Hill House is a metaphorical expression of everything Friedan wanted to say about women in the 1960s- the house is haunted, so to speak. The house was crushing women. It was making women crazy.
Well, you’re starting to steal a little bit of my thunder –next week we are going to spend almost the entire episode discussing the house itself, but you are dead on about what Jackson is doing in her work…pardon the pun. But, I want to say before all the men moan and groan and say, I’m turning this off if this is going to be another one of those feminist books- the book really is much more than a political commentary- in fact that’s just one way of relating to it. The metaphor most definitely can be read exactly as you have connected to the femininist movement of the 1960s, and many many people have read it just that way, but I’m not sure Jackson herself really did, although there’s no doubt she was an advocate for many of the things you just enumerated. She, like Ibsen, would say her work is art and not a piece of political propaganda. She would also likely claim, and I know I’m being presumptuous to speak for her, but I do think she would claim, that would be a very small way to understand her body of work, if that’s all you thought it was. She was writing the emotions and then the reader found themselves in them.
I was also interested to see that Jackson, very much like Elizabeth Barrett Browning struggled fighting critics over the years. Stanley Hyman, her husband and literary critic during their lives, in the preface for a book he published of her yet unpublished work after her death famously wrote, “For all her popularity, Shirley Jackson won surprisingly little recognition. She received no awards or prizes, grants or fellowships; her name was often omitted from lists on which it clearly belonged, or which it should have led. She saw these honors go to inferior writers.”
True, and Hyman, although I have trouble giving him credit for anything because of his and Shirley’s relationship which we’ll talk about in a different episode, but he predicted that Jackson’s “powerful visions of suffering and inhumanity” and would be found “increasingly significant and meaningful.” He truly always understood that her long form or serious work was more than pop fiction, or gory horror, and yet that was not the majority view of that time.
And part of that is somewhat understandable. One thing I didn’t know about her until we started reading up on her for this podcast series was that her acclaim during her day really came from two places- one was for the short story, “The Lottery”, but the other and this is what I didn’t know- was her best-selling essay collection on domestic life titled Life Among the Savages. I haven’t read much of that, to be honest, but what I did read is really truly funny stuff stuff. She was Erma Bombeck before Erma Bombeck.
Yes- and she was funny, and she was writing about her kids, house cleaning, being a mom, a member of a local community and all the craziness of middle-class life. It was the stuff that people were living in their world, and she made it funny. People didn’t take seriously the psychological insights into issues of emotional isolation, rage, paranoia, and the fragmentation of the human mind- from a person who was a regular contributor to magazines like Good Housekeeping, Mademoiselle, McCall’s and Ladies Home Journal.
No, it was just too different, and of course, you can’t discount the condescension from the serious art community- I mean here was a woman writing in a genre that nobody took seriously about female protagonists- which was often not taken seriously- and was famous for cute anecdotes about the comedy of errors which is life as a house-mom raising four children in a small town.We must remember also, as a general rule, the 1950s are not that far removed from the time period where women didn’t read literature at all- there was a thing called “ladies reading material” That’s what women read. Men read literature, but women writing for women was not elevated enough to actually be called “literature”- it was simply reading material for women.
Oh- well – I guess we shall make that distinction- although I will say, as a woman writing “ladies reading material” for money she did fairly well for herself. Shirley Jackson made serious cash off of these stories- in fact, she outearned her husband- and it was the essays that were funding their lifestyles, not her novels. Her biographer Ruth Franklin, commented in an interview that she could make over $2000 per essay which at the time was enough to fun to fund her Morris Minor collection.
Nice- well British Sports cars are always a fun thing to keep around the house.
I’ll say. But back to her legacy for a second, Jackson is like Elizabeth Barrett Browning in that her work, well after her death, found it’s way into the canon and today is very much taken seriously. In fact, we’re teaching her right now to all the 11th graders at Bartlett High School, and almost all American students will at some point read her short story “The Lottery”, the famous short story that triggered more public outrage in 1948 than anything published before or since by the magazine the New Yorker. Hundreds of people cancelled their subscriptions and even more wrote the magazine totally exasperated.
Well, it’s political and psychological and really even religious as well. But back to the 11th graders at Bartlett, do you think your kids will be able to appreciate or enjoy the depth of the psychological analysis in her novel that today is the central hallmark of her work?
Yeah, I think many of them will get it. I look forward to how they understand what she’s talking about. You know, students today live in such a different world and the ghosts and houses that haunt them look so differently than the ghosts and houses that haunted our generation or much less Shirley Jackson’s. I look forward to discussing some of these issues with them and see what fascinates them the most.
One of the things that fascinates me the most and I’m expecting to come out is Jackson’s multiple direct and indirect references to the relationship between mothers and daughters. It’s clear in this book that whatever is going wrong in Eleanor’s mind has something to do with her dead mother. I have two daughters, and I really pray, I am not the kind of mother Shirley Jackson had or that my daughters ever express any of the feelings she expresses about mother/daughter relationships- nothing that would haunt and torment my children after I’m dead.
No, I’m sure none of us want to have that kind of legacy with our children.
And yet, there are women like Geraldine Jackson, Shirley’s mother. Geraldine was truly relentless in her cruelty towards her daughter. She was cruel to her as a child and her passive aggressive disapproval was something she perpetuated all throughout Shirley’s life right to her untimely death at age 48.
Yes and I think understanding Geraldine’ cruelty really helps me see some of the things in Jackson’s writing that I may have overlooked before. And I know that an author’s life cannot be used uncritically to explain an artist’s work; obviously art speaks for itself, but maybe more than any other writer we’ve read together, Jackson uses her writings to express pain in artistic ways that were personal to her, but universal to many of us. Geraldine’s ruthless subtle and sometimes not so subtle demoralizing was something Jackson could not get out of her mind. .
Geraldine’s own personality disorder took a heavy toll on Shirley.
And it was always expressed with all the best of intentions- she was always so concerned.
Let’s tell a little about their story and then people will know what you’re talking about.
Okay, well the story starts when Jackson was born in 1916 (although she lied about her age and claimed to have been born in 1919- which I think is funny), but anyway, she was born into an affluent family and up until she was 16 they lived in Burlingame, California.
Let me interrupt, just for context, Burlingame, to this day is one of the most expensive cities in the United States. The median house in Burlingame costs over 2 million dollars- and I’m not talking mansions- this is the price range for what would be an average home that would cost a tenth of that in other parts of the US. Every review on bestplaces.com talks about how unaffordable it is for most people to live in this Burlingame.
Yep, and Geraldine, Shirley’s mom and her father Leslie, cultivated that cliché’d vision of the upper class country club lifestyle. They were into the production of this very sophisticated appearance of success and wealth, what was important was the appearance of things. They were into competitive living, and that, of course, still includes having perfect children. Shirley’s brother, I might add, was beautiful and competitive and made them proud, but unfortunately for Shirley, she was not- and this was just a huge disappointment for Geraldine. She could not nor did she want to fit the mold. Shirley was heavier than the other girls. She didn’t enjoy the same kinds of things as the other girls. She didn’t have that “All-American” barbie doll look like the other girls. She wasn’t into the deputante thing, and if she had been wasn’t cute enough.
Yes, I read a couple of articles that called Jackson morbidly obese, so I googled images of her, it was true that she was heavier , but, in my mind, she falls way short of the criteria for morbidly obese by today’s definition, especially in her youth. And I want to say something else about this 1950’s lifestyle we’ve been discussing. After WW 2 there was a huge economic boom that doubled family incomes in the decade. It was the first decade of widespread middle class wealth. And one sign of that new middle class wealth was the ability to live on one income. Wives staying at home were a sign of wealth and prestige.
Maybe not, but she certainly wasn’t the daughter Geraldine wanted nor could be proud of at a deputant ball. In fact, truth be told, Geraldine was actually disappointed when she found out she was pregnant because she didn’t want a child at that time. But Geraldine’s largest problem and obsession was with Shirley’s weight- and her obsession with Shirley’s weight never ended. She made comments about her weight- all of the time. They were gratuitous, just dropped in to remind her that she was fat. Here are some quotes from a couple of Geraldine’s letters to her daughter just to show you what I’m talking about. “Glad you’re dieting.” “Excess weight is hard on the heart.” “You should get down to normal weight. Try non-fat milk.” Even after the publication of what would be Jackson’s final novel, Geraldine could be relied on to bring up her weight, “Why oh why do you allow the magazines to print such awful pictures of you?...I have been so sad all morning about what you have allowed yourself to look like.”
Yes, let me read the full quote for context.
If you don’t care what you look like or care about your appearance why don’t you do something about it for your children’s sake— and your husband’s. . . . I have been so sad all morning about what you have allowed yourself to look like. . . . You were and I guess still are a very wilful child and one who insisted on her own way in everything— good or bad.
This is a straight up narcissistic rant.
There was always the subtext that was no matter what Shirley did with her life, she could never live up to her mother’s expectations- even if she was famous- Jackson wanted acceptance of who she was- but she wanted it on her terms, and she and wanted to prove to her mom that the way she was was a good way, and she could be good at life just by being herself- but that was never going to happen. In fact, at one low moment, Geraldine actually told her daughter that she was a failed abortion.
Wow. That is just hateful. Geraldine wanted a girl in the image of what she wanted, and she was never going to compromise. This is classically what people call today a “toxic mother”, And this plays a terrible toll on girls who have toxic mothers. These behaviors can destroy women’s images of themselves. And this is what seems to have happened with Jackson and her mother.
Let me just back up and say, it’s absolutely natural and healthy for a girl to look up to her mother; a mom is the original ideal of what a woman should be. That’s how we all learn to navigate in this world, and likely a mom and a daughter will have a lot in common for obvious reasons. There is a lot of joy in that. There is a special bond in that. Over the years, though, as a little girl develops into a teenager, although at first she wants to be exactly like her mom, that desire kind of separates out. In a normal relationship, as a girl transitions into a woman, she individuates. She becomes her own person. Some things of her mother she will keep; others she’ll discard. And healthy moms respect and encourage their daughters individuality. A normal mom will do whatever she can to equip her daughter, make her bolder and stronger. But as painful as it may be from a mom’s perspective, healthy mom’s accept daughter’s choices- even the ones they think are mistakes. That’s just what they do, and if they end up being mistakes, it’s okay. We all get to live our own lives. But in Geraldine’s life, what Shirley did was a reflection on her, so she couldn’t let the fact that her daughter was overweight go.
Well, how do you think she took it when Shirley told her mom she was marrying a Jew in 1940- or I should say that she had already married a Jew, she didn’t even tell them she got married until several months later because they were anti-Semitic people, I can imagine that didn’t go well?
No, I’d say it probably didn’t, but I really don’t know. I do want to say one other thing, Christy, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s pretty well-established that motherhood is by definition a lose/lose proposition- moms just can’t win. It’s impossible to raise a perfect child, just like it’s impossible to be a perfect person, so of course we can’t raise a person in the most perfect of emotional environments.
Mom’s will unrealistically be blamed for things that may or may not be their fault- the reality is no one can be perfect, we will hurt each other and there will insecurities that spring up because of the way we are raised, and that’s kind of normal too- it’s normal for dads; it’s normal for moms. But, that is not the same as being a toxic mom. Geraldine was toxic. Nothing was ever going to be good enough for Geraldine. She was perpetually disapproving, and Shirley was never going to meet her standards. Geraldine was also always very controlling- I read somewhere she made Shirley wear garters and high heels as a little girl. She was constantly guilt-tripping Shirley. She constantly made negative comments; she manipulated her emotions, and most of the time she did it passive-aggressively. She did it under the guise of love.
And that seems to be in one sense what Jackson expresses in her writing- it’s at least what lots of people have identified with in Hill House. There is this sense that Shirley could never get her mom out of her head, and of course, she’s not the only one who struggles with these kinds of things. In Hill House, the main character is a 32 year old young woman named Eleanor Vance. I want to add that 32 is not a young age. She’s not telling the story of a child and the abuses of a mother on a small child. Eleanor is a fully grown adult who should be living her own independent life for quite some time. But she hasn’t. She hasn’t even had an opportunity to do so. Eleanor has no friends and is alone. That’s what we’re told at the beginning and we will see all the way through to the end of the book when she tells Theo she has never been wanted, it’s been how she’s felt always. We’re also told Eleanor’s mother is dead right here at the beginning, and that Eleanor has been taking care of her relentlessly since she was twenty years old. Eleanor’s mom is a constant presence in Eleanor’s psyche, even beyond the grave. She even buys clothes that she knows her mother hates- pants- just because her mom is dead and can’t do anything about it. Eleanor is being haunted before she ever gets to Hill House.
True, and this lack of self-esteem and then loneliness is what has resonated with so many women and men who read Jackson’s stories. It also is what directly led to a lot of the suffering Jackson experienced in her marriage to Stanley.
Stanley Hyman, there’s a character. Before I smear him, I guess I will say right off that bat that he, in many ways, was very supportive of Shirley professionally and admired her intellectually. My problem with him is that he degraded her sexually- and that is the cruelest and most intimate and demeaning forms of degradation that there is. For one thing he absolutely did not respect the sexual boundaries Shirley wanted in their marriage. Besides having so many affairs with students at the school he taught but also really just anyone—he seemed to enjoy telling Jackson all about these trysts. I’ve read a few of the letters he wrote about women he was sleeping with on various business trips, and I got the feeling it’s almost like he was bragging a little bit. I’d read a few quotes, but they’re vulgar. He talked about groping girls- giving details about what he had done. It’s gross never mind hurtful. And Shirley would get upset. Although she was a free spirit and Bohemian in some ways, this was not okay with her. She didn’t want a open marriage where everyone just slept with whoever they wanted. There are letters where she writes him and expresses how this behavior made her feel, but she never mailed these letters. I don’t even know why. Maybe she didn’t have the nerve. Maybe she knew it made no difference. Maybe she wanted her family and that was a price she was willing to pay. I’m speculating. We only know that she just took it. She wouldn’t confront him, at least that there isa record of. She just forced herself to accept it and moved on with her life.
And that is an indication of low self-esteem, obviously. Jackson wouldn’t have put up with that sort of thing like she did, if she didn’t think, at some level, it was her fault or that she didn’t deserve to be treated any better than that. This is the legacy of a toxic parent. Allowing people to treat you in a way that is lesser and that is not how you treat them is a direct result of low self-esteem, but I want to add that future abusive relationships is not the only symptom of low self-esteem and it isn’t the only symptom of low-esteem we see in Jackson’s life. Behaviors that provoke self-harm like over-eating, over-drinking, and pill-popping- all things Jackson did- are also a result of low esteem and indicate high levels of anxiety. Feelings of sadness, depression, anxiety, anger, shame and guilt- are also things we see in Jackson’s life. She seems to have truly struggled emotionally.
True, but before we get too dark, Shirley was all of that, but she wasn’t ONLY that. She had a happy side too- an apparently tremendously happy side. I say that from interviews I read that people did with her children. When her kids write or talk about their homelife, the reports are glowing. Her home was a happy place. It was chaotic and topsy turvey at times, the kind of crazy that people love. They didn’t even see any tension between their parents. For one thing, Stanley didn’t have a whole lot to do with the family- lots of men didn’t in the 50s, that was the mother’s domain, but from the perspective of her children, her marriage to Stanley was a happy one, as was their home. So, we see all of that going on. Back to her biographer, Ruth Franklin, Franklin titled her biography about Jackson, “A Rather Haunted Life” kind of to reflect that idea- that she was haunted, but not entirely, just rather haunted.
Yes, and it was that dichotomy that leads to all kinds of cognitive dissonance. I read in another article by a different biographer that Shirley, as a mother was deeply involved but also emotionally erratic. “Her moods and anxieties colored her children’s days. No one could be more loving; no one could be meaner.”
Which brings me back to her as a writer. One critic observed that out of over 110 different stories that Jackson wrote in her lifetime, most of them are about imperiled, divided or anxious women- and that is including both her scary and her funny stories. And when we get to her final three novels- they are gothic completely about anxiety, entrapment and in the case of Hill House, a deeply troubled female with an inability to differentiate well between illusion and reality.
Understanding that really makes the famous first paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House meaningful in a deeper way, at least it does to me. And I do want to emphasize this first paragraph is one of the most famous paragraphs in all of Jackson’s writings:
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 stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
And what do you always say, when we start these books, that great writers will give their story away in the first sentence or two.
They almost always do. This one in particular invites us to think about so much. First of all, it starts with a negation- “no” but there are a lot of negative words here. It’s hard to understand, but something is telling us no- and when we get to the end of the book, that prophecy is fulfilled, although I won’t spoil that just yet and tell you how. But there’s so much more.
Listen to the ideas she introduces- there is the idea of being alive- of being sane- or not sane- another negative word- of standing in the darkness-in the silence- of being alone. Of being in a house, but yet…being alone. The alliteration highlights and brings together her key ideas- within walls- drawing attention to the idea of claustrophobia- sensibly shut; silence lay steadily I might add brings the silence and the claustrophobia together. Then of course- whatever walked- walked alone- the w sound kind of swoshes in her head and haunts the end of that sentence.
All of her personal demons in one sentence.
Yes- and all of her personal demons getting ready to flesh themselves out metaphorically for all of us to understand and experience with her.
This assertion that she makes about absolute reality, of course is a religious or philosophical statement. This idea that we absolutely just cannot know what is real, and if we did know what is real we would go crazy. She’s going to say that even little bird or crickets (a katydid is a cricket if you haven’t heard that word yet, it’s not very common)- Not even the simpliest organisms can handle a world without illusions. We need them to protect our own sanity.
Yes- and the subtext here suggests because reality is dark; and the reality is you are alone in this world. You can live – but perhaps you must accept a dream, perhaps an illusion that people have your back, people love you and will support you, but in reality- you are alone. Perhaps you have to even create an entire fairyland- something to give you an escape from what you know to be true- the betrayal which is coming. I’m speculating, obviously because I’m fleshing out what is implied with the subtext, at least implied to me- but there is a sense that that is the direction she’s leading us, and it certainly seems to be something we find in her personal story.
It’s also kind of a religious statement because it speaks to the nature of reality and that is the essence of faith and walking through life not-alone. Christy, what was her religious background.
Well, that’s a very interesting question. She was raised by members of the the Christian Science church, but later on she developed a real fascination with the occult and was even accused of being a witch. Garry, what makes Christian scientists different from main stream Christianity?
Christian scientists, for those who are not familiar with Christianity, adopt many tenents of traditional Christianity but they break from it in a couple of ways that are obvious. For one, they do not accept the diety of Jesus Christ in the way traditional versions of Christianity do. But the second is What most people know and that is the tension is the between The teachings of the Christian science church and their complicated relationship with the medical community. They encourage their members to pray for divine healings often perhaps instead of going to doctors. And this has been controversial in some cases especially for family members outside of the faith.
That was certainly true for Jackson. One time she and her brother were horsing around and her brother broke his arm, instead of going to the doctor Geraldine and her mother stayed up all night and prayed for his broken arm. Her grandmother was a faith healer in the church and Jackson did not approve of this. So, she had this side of her, that would seem more secular- but then Jackson had her own sense of the spiritual. She carried around tarot cards, tried to communicate with spirits later in her life, and flirted with all kinds of spiritual practices, like I said before, many accusing her of actually practicing witchcraft, ahtough I never found anything that really verified how serious she was about that.
So I can see why she might say something about absolute reality being somewhat unknowable or even a dark and lonely thing.
True, and at least in this book what we see in the the relationships that populate the lives of the characters is that they are contrived. In chapter 1 of The Haunting of Hill House, Dr. Montague, a title that is somewhat meant to mislead since he’s really a ghost hunter, assembles a very select group of people to live with him for three months in a house that he thinks is probably haunted. There are only four people that will be in this house- Dr. Montague himself, Luke, who is a member of the family who will own the house, Theodora who is selected because she may have extra-sensesory perspection abilities and Eleanor who as a child appeared to bring down a shower of rocks.
We will follow what happens to them from the point of view of Eleanor. This story is written in the third person omniscient style, but it’s way more akin to the free indirect discourse we saw Jane Austen create in Emma. Laura Miller in the introduction to the book put it this way, readers "experience the novel from within Eleanor's consciousness, and however unreliable we know her to be, we are wedded to her". And of course the farther into the novel you get, the more you understand how true this statement really is. Most of the first chapter is really kind of a way to introduce us to Eleanor, and what we find out about her first is that she is 32, she genuinely and for good reason hated her mother until she died and now genuinely hates her sister. Let’s read this part…
She’s clearly alone and exploited by people who are supposed to be protect her. This is further developed through the anecdote about her sister and their car. Apparently they bought a car together but her sister never lets her drive it. So, when Dr. Montague invites her to come to Hill House, she just takes the car and goes. And while she’s driving to Hill House, she imagines all sorts of things. She imagines things that could never be real, like the road being an intimate friend or living in a house with a pair of stone lions and people bowing to her on the street because of these lions. It’s gives you kind of this crazy feeling- like how you would feel if you finally had escaped.
Yes, and that crazy feeling is going to intensify as the book progresses. She’s escaped her mother only to land sleeping on a cot in the nursery of a terrible sister. She’s not escaped her sister, but to go where. At one point on her drive to Hill House she stops to admire a quarter of a mile of Oleanders. Oleanders are beautiful flowers but they are also poisonous flowers. She fantasizes about them about a castle with oleanders …then she gets back in her car and drives to a diner where she’s going to watch a mother try to coax her daughter into drinking a cup of milk- and let me tell you know- these very same images that she sees on her drive in come back towards the end of the book as we, as readers, feel we are losing our grasp of reality.
But here in chapter 1, when she finally gets to the mansion, the care taker, Mr. Dudley flat out tells her, “You won’t like it. You’ll be sorry I ever opened that gate.” She looks at him and asks him to get away from her car…then she proceeds forward. At the end of the chapter, we see her looking at this house and this is what she says, “The house was vile. She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseases, get away from here at once.”
But of course she doesn’t.
No, she doesn’t. That’s the thing about haunting houses- they are dangerously tantalizing. She was invited here by Mr. Montague and for better or for worse, she wants to be here. I don’t know if the Haunting of Hill House is the best example of this, but Jackson was absolutely fascinated with this- Jackson was fascinated with man’s obsession with what Poe called the “imp of the perverse.”
Oh yes, the urge to do something awful to someone and have pleasure in it. I’ve seen this in kids, a kid just trips a stranger in the hall just because he can. Paul Salkovskis, a psychology professor, suggests that it’s evolutionary to have these kinds of intrusive thoughts as part of our way of problem solving for future problems. But this idea that people have impulses to do mean things or at least things we know we shouldn’t and get joy from them. Jackson was very interested in this idea. So, are you saying that Dr. Montague is deliberately doing something mean. Or that Dudley is? Or Eleanor is?
Not really, in other stories she really demonstrates this much more poignantly, but the reason it comes to mind, besides the fact that I’ve been told to look for it in her writings, is that we are setting up relationships where we really can’t trust each other to be there for each other. Hill House looks like a place where you are really going to feel alone and exposed and that’s where the terror comes from, but we will also see that it’s soft and motherly and the people here at the beginning seem kind of exciting- it’s seductive.
And I guess it does and has for many readers. Let me just add one thing I didn’t know until we started studying this book. Horrornovelreviews.com claims that The Haunting of Hill House is the 8th scariest novel of all time. And Paste magazine puts it into the unsorted top 30.
And so we open the gates to this terrifying place- Hill House- next episode we will look at the house itself, we’ll look at the places where biographers think she got her inspiration for the house, we’ll meet the other residents, explore the history of the house and begin to experience the ghosts- if that’s what they are- as they manifest themselves to us through the eyes of Eleanor.