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 eighty 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.
Thus begins one of the scariest novels written by Shirley Jackson in 1959, describing a doomed mansion and leaving the reading with an ominous warning: “whatever walked there, walked alone”. Shirley Jackson was a writer who understood that good scares come to those who wait, but she also knew how to get to the point.
The new Netflix series “The Haunting of Hill House” — a loose adaptation that ambitiously marries the terrors of a ghost story with an intricate, multigenerational family drama — opens with a reading of this passage, which suggests fealty to source material. But if you listen closely, you might notice that the perspective has radically shifted, away from the book’s omniscient narrator and toward the man speaking.
Shirley Jackson, known for her 1948 story The Lottery, continued to publish short stories in a variety of literary magazines. While she was a recluse in much of her life, her 1959 novel follows Dr. John Montague, occult scholar and doctor in philosophy, as he explores a house that is said to be haunted. He decides to rent it out for three months and then go and live in it and in order to document his findings, he needs the help of a few assistants.
Because he thought of himself as careful and conscientious, he spent considerable time looking for his assistants. He combed the records of the psychic societies, the back files of sensational newspapers, the reports of parapsychologists, and assembled a list of names of people who had, in one way or another, at one time or another, no matter how briefly or dubiously, been involved in abnormal events. From his list he first eliminated the names of people who were dead. When he had then crossed off the names of those who seemed to him publicity seekers, of subnormal intelligence, or unsuitable because of a clear tendency to take the center of the stage, he had a list of perhaps a dozen names.
One of his volunteers for the project is Eleanor Vance, an isolated woman whittled away by a life spent caring for her ageing mother.
She could not remember ever being truly happy in her adult life; her years with her mother had been built up devotedly around small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness, and unending despair.
In the Netflix adaptation, Olivia tells a story about her younger years, when after he father’s death, the house she was living in was pelted with rocks in a solid rain. It’s possible that the show creators based Olivia’s story on Eleanor’s background.
Her name had turned up on Dr Montague’s list because one day, when she was twelve years old and her sister was eighteen, and their father had been dead for not quite a month, showers of stones had fallen on their house, without any warning or any indication of purpose or reason, dropping from the ceilings rolling loudly down the walls, breaking windows and pattering maddeningly on the roof. The stones continued intermittently for three days, during which time Eleanor and her sister were less unnerved by the stones than by the neighbors and sightseers who gathered daily outside the front door.
Eleanor is a lovely young thing. She is 32 and she half-owns a car with her sister. She had to fight to be able to borrow it for the experiment and her leaving was frowned upon as no-one knew of this doctor and there were rumors about different experiments doctor did with young women. She is happy to get away anywhere and she would have left for any reason. She can feel her time ticking away from her and she wanted to feel like she’d done something with her life. To make it count.
She had taken to wondering lately, during these swiftcounted years, what had been done with all those wasted summer days; how could she have spent them so wantonly? I am foolish, she told herself early every summer, I am very foolish; I am grown up now and know the values of things. Nothing is ever really wasted, she believed sensibly, even one’s childhood, and then each year, one summer morning, the warm wind would come down the city street where she walked and she would be touched with the little cold thought: I have let more time go by.
As we get to see her coming closer and closer to the house, we get to know Eleanor and I took her as a person who never got out a lot and had a very romantic life outlook. She had the Cinderella syndrome of wanting to find her price and be rescued from the house of her evil step-mother. She starts to fantasise about how her life would be in the big mansion and every tree and garden she sees carry a deeper meaning to her.
“I will go into a sweet garden, with fountains and low benches and roses trained over arbours, and find one path-jeweled, perhaps, with rubies and emeralds, soft enough for a king’s daughter to walk upon with her little sandaled feet-and it will lead me directly to the palace which lies under a spell. “
Her fantasies continue as she imagines herself a princess and the Queen waiting for her to return to the house. She stops at a pub on the way there and as she enjoys the moment, she hears a ruckus at the nearby table caused by a little girl who didn’t want to drink the milk from the glass it was offered in but she wanted her cup of stars. This hit a note as it was distinctly mentioned in the Netflix show as well.
Don’t do it, Eleanor told the little girl; insist on your cup of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again; don’t do it; and the little girl glanced at her, and smiled a little subtle, dimpling, wholly comprehending smile and shook her head stubbornly at the glass.
When she finally makes it to the house, she is confronted at the gates by the keeper, Dudley, who like Peter, denies her entry on the grounds unless she knows what she’s in for. He ominously chuckles that no-body stays there after dark. After she gets through the thicket, she catches a glimpse of the house:
They made houses so oddly back when Hill House was built, she thought; they put towers and turrets and buttresses and wooden lace on them, even sometimes Gothic spires and gargoyles; nothing was ever left undecorated.
Once her romantic fantasies stop and she no longer thinks about pirates and smugglers and someone she could meet, a thought hits her – her gut feeling, the flight or fight response kicks in and she wants to flee at once.
The house was vile. She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.
I loved the writing in this book – especially when it came to describing the evil emanating from the house. Maybe it’s the way it’s been built but the author describes the construction as an act of conscious getting together of parts, like a monster attaching another arm on itself and being fully awake. It reminded me of another TV show I saw when I was younger which any Stephen King fans might recognise: Rose Red.
This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity. It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed.
In the house she meets Mrs. Dudley, a weird woman who looks unwashed and unkempt regardless of her clean apron and who takes Eleanor to her room. The dimensions of the room seem off and the colours seem to be clashing rather than harmonising together. As she unpacks, she realises that she’s actually very quiet, much like Mrs. Dudley was.
I am like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster, she thought, and the monster feels my tiny little movements inside.
The rest of the assistants show up and they are now four people in the house. As they gather around the doctor, the three assistants (Luke, Theodora and Eleanor) learn about the idea of a haunted house which has been in the mind of men since time immemorial:
“.. the concept of certain houses as unclean or forbidden-perhaps sacred-is as old as the mind of man. Certainly there are spots which inevitably attach to themselves an atmosphere of holiness and goodness; it might not then be too fanciful to say that some houses are born bad. Hill House, whatever the cause, has been unfit for human habitation for upwards of twenty years. What it was like before then, whether its personality was molded by the people who lived here, or the things they did, or whether it was evil from its start are all questions I cannot answer. Naturally I hope that we will all know a good deal more about Hill House before we leave. No one knows, even, why some houses are called haunted.”
The doctor knows that the house is assumed to be haunted and it might feel evil due to something that happened in it or due to its location. Maybe it’s sitting on an electro-magnetic ground, maybe it’s above a well. Maybe people who lived in it suffered from mental illnesses and anxiety. Maybe the air was polluted. Maybe the air pressure was wrong. Maybe..
People,” the doctor said sadly, “are always so anxious to get things out into the open where they can put a name to them, even a meaningless name, so long as it has something of a scientific ring.”
Previous tenants do not wish to divulge any information that might be of use and they had all left the house shortly after moving in. None of them deemed the house as haunted and they all tried to provide logical explanations as to why they moved out. None wanted to return and all of them advised the doctor to stay away. When he starts researching the newspapers, he finds a lot of information and a scandal:
“A perfectly splendid scandal, with a suicide and madness and lawsuits.”
After dinner, the ladies sit by the fire while the men play chess. I was intrigued when I read that Eleanor liked to collect buttons. And then it hit me – it was Nelly! Theodora confessed earlier that she broke a greenhouse with a brick when she was little – that’s the middle child. The older sister and Steve were missing from this setup.
As Eleanor talks about her mother’s death and how she got a small apartment with the leftover money, she mentions something peculiar.
“I have a little place of my own,” she said slowly. “An apartment, like yours, only I live alone. Smaller than yours, I’m sure. I’m still furnishing it-buying one thing at a time, you know, to make sure I get everything absolutely right. White curtains. I had to look for weeks before I found my little stone lions on each corner of the mantel, and I have a white cat and my books and records and pictures. Everything has to be exactly the way I want it, because there’s only me to use it; once I had a blue cup with stars painted on the inside; when you looked down into a cup of tea it was full of stars. I want a cup like that.”
So the stone lions that she admired in the Hill house she had as well and the star cup which the little girl wanted in the pub – she used to have one too. Or maybe she’s lying. I started to feel this oddly specific current from Eleanor which spelled insanity. Maybe I was wrong but I continued reading on.
The house design is slightly off but in what manner – the doctor takes his time to explain it properly. The original owner, Hugh Cram, did not use right angles. He designed hexagonal houses and all the corners and doors and walls were slightly askew prompting the doors to slam shut when a vibration was felt through the floor.
“What happens when you go back to a real house?” Eleanor asked.
“I mean-a-well-a real house?” “It must be like coming off shipboard,” Luke said. “After being here for a while your sense of balance could be so distorted that it would take you a while to lose your sea legs, or your Hill House legs. Could it be,” he asked the doctor, “that what people have been assuming were supernatural manifestations were really only the result of a slight loss of balance in the people who live here? The inner ear,” he told Theodora wisely.
“We have grown to trust blindly in our senses of balance and reason, and I can see where the mind might fight wildly to preserve its own familiar stable patterns against all evidence that it was leaning sideways.”
As the book progresses, so do the hauntings. Strange sightings of dogs running around the house, loud knocking on doors and many more. The professor is thrilled and links this case with other much famous ones:
The impact of the novel could hardly be emphasized too strongly. As Joe Hill notes, Jackson was the first to understand that people are more intimately involved in hauntings than houses are:
All the most terrible specters are already there inside your head, just waiting for the cellar door of the subconscious to spring open so they can get out, sink their icy claws into you… In the story, the house toys with the minds of our heroes just like the cat with the mouse: with a fascinated, joyful cruelty. Nothing is more terrifying than being betrayed by your own senses and psyche.
There are no ghosts or so we tell ourselves. But as the doctor puts it, our modern minds are close to invulnerable to an attack from a supernatural entity as we don’t believe in such things.
“No physical danger exists,” the doctor said positively. “No ghost in all the long histories of ghosts has ever hurt anyone physically. The only damage done is by the victim to himself. One cannot even say that the ghost attacks the mind, because the mind, the conscious, thinking mind, is invulnerable; in all our conscious minds, as we sit here talking, there is not one iota of belief in ghosts. Not one of us, even after last night, can say the word ‘ghost’ without a little involuntary smile. No, the menace of the supernatural is that it attacks where modern minds are weakest, where we have abandoned our protective armor of superstition and have no substitute defense. We cannot say, ‘It was my imagination,’ because three other people were there too.”
“I could say,” Eleanor put in, smiling, “‘All three of you are in my imagination; none of this is real.’”
This is where the danger lies in the house. The thin line between dream and reality. And boredom. As they got settled, the ghastly appearances stopped and the only thing that broke the monotony was measuring the cold spots and odd blood-red messages appearing in Theo’s room asking for Eleanor to come home. Theo moves in with Eleanor and their proximity is driving Nell crazy.
I would like to hit her with a stick, Eleanor thought, looking down on Theodora’s head beside her chair; I would like to batter her with rocks. [..] I would like to watch her dying
A buddying romance develops (one-sided) between Nell and Luke as romantic Nell wants to be with Luke. The truth is that Luke is terribly selfish and the only thing he wants is a replacement for the mother that had left him when he was young. Luke is attracted to Theo and even though Theo has a partner waiting for her at home, she uses this interlude at Hill House to experience a summer fling with Luke. She tries to warn Nell that she’s wearing her heart on her sleeve but Nell at this point is past caring.
She’s been so deprived of human interraction due to caring for her mother’s illness that she spent most of her time inside fantasy world she built up for herself in order to escape the mundane life. She falls hard for Theo and even asks her if she can move in with her after Hill House.
Theo wants nothing to do with her and Nell falls into a frenzy that makes the house tilt and groan. The book becomes unclear at this point. It might not be haunted at all and all the phenomena caused by the psychic latent power that Nell possesses. Nell is sent home after nearly killing herself at the top of the circular staircase and she decides to crash the car on the way out of the property in an attempt to stay there forever.
All in all, the book has a bland ending and the potential for more. It’s obsession with Eleanor’s inner workings show that she might have been the cause for the disturbances experienced in the house or maybe the house used her as a medium to express itself. Her leaving Hill House had no impact on the rest of the inhabitants and they shortly concluded the experiment and went back to their own lives.
The house was left uninhabited.