A House Without Love is Not a Home
My introduction to Shirley Jackson is memorable in that it marks my first exposure to a particular kind of horror. Not the kind I experienced from watching my first monster picture at age five (Tarantula—and it was love at first sight), but the difficult to articulate kind of horror, the silent dread that feeds your paranoia, and makes you feel that the world is a lonelier place than you ever realized, and much, much colder. My fifth-grade class (seems a bit young for this, but whatever) read The Lottery then watched the film, shown to us on a reel-to-reel projector inside the classroom with the shades down, which is how it was done back in the day. Here’s the exact film that traumatized my young mind so. Watching it again now on YouTube it appears quite tame, but I remember how that streak of blood on poor Tessie’s face horrified me. I suppose the reason I was sensitive about townspeople piling up rocks to beat to death one of their community members is I had witnessed and fought with children who routinely bullied (and threw at stones for real) my mentally ill brother. Kids can be real shits, and so can their parents, as the real-life horror of the current election process proves. Perhaps another reason the story hit me so hard is that I was raised in a rural community that somewhat resembled the one depicted in the story. Among the comforting scents of apples rotting on the ground and distant manure-laden fields (country folks understand) there was an air of ignorance passing off as tradition that could chill you to the bone. Every community must have its scapegoat (sacrifice), and one just hopes it’s not her turn…this year.
Jackson is a master (mistress) of quiet dread, and I picked up The Haunting of Hill House (I’d seen the original movie, but somehow never read the book) anticipating nothing less than subtle chills and great writing. I wasn’t disappointed.
As a side note, I am astounded to see many online readers giving this gothic classic one-star reviews and describing it as slow, or (my favorite) complaining that nothing happens. Seriously? If you don’t possess the attention span to sustain interest in an astoundingly well-written novel (novella really) of less than two hundred pages, then how in the world do you handle Trollope? (I was going to write something ruder, but I don’t wish to be a bully myself). And, if you are a fan of horror, know that King Stephen thinks it’s one of the best books of the 20th century. But what does he know?
I am a horror fan (and I love Stephen King), but I like my scares best served subtle and poignant, as in meaningful, not zombie apocalypse cheap (and laughable) thrills. Before I picked up The Haunting of Hill House I had just finished The Scarlet Gospels, and although I love Clive Barker, much, much more happens inside Eleanor’s neurotic brain than Pinhead’s entire murder spree through Hell, believe me. I find the quiet dread of doubt much more frightening than a demon getting eviscerated to such a degree that his head pokes out his anus (I’m paraphrasing here, but no joke). What I used to love about Barker’s writing is that he was somehow able to match the eloquence of a Shirley Jackson with the imagery of Hieronymus Bosch, creating his unique brand of poetic gore. Although there were beautiful Barkeresque passages in The Scarlet Gospel, the book was neither scary nor, sadly, very interesting. I suspect Barker had “help” writing this, and that he is much happier in his basement painting his dark visions. He’s an astounding talent, and I will forever remain a loyal fan, breathlessly awaiting his next masterpiece.
But back to Hill House.
Maybe it’s a female thing, but I found a particularly disquieting horror in Eleanor’s story. She is what is referred to in literature classes as an unreliable narrator. Even though it’s written in the third person, it’s from one point of view–a very sad and crazy one, but she is the one we are with throughout the journey, and in that way, we can’t help but identify with her. Nell is spinsterish and childlike in equal measure, and not exactly a good girl in either personae. She lies, steals a car (although her sister and husband deserve it), and neurotically believes that everything is all about her. Of course, in this story it is. We never get to know what the other characters are really thinking (does Theo also experience the landscape turning into negative during that strange evening stroll around the grounds, or only Nell?). Whatever their opinions of her, at some point they all reject her, and probably discuss (laugh at?) her behind her back, making it worse. Even the house rejects her, and in her desperate, final bid to hang on, her dependent personality pleading of virtual strangers “Why won’t they stop me?” she is destroyed.
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.
While reading the story, I kept picturing Julie Harris and Claire Bloom as Eleanor and Theo respectively. When I was done, I watched the film again, and the women’s performances stand the test of time. Julie Harris perfectly portrays Nell’s dual personality: a spinster with her hair in a bun and scratchy tweed suits, a child with her long hair, and frilly nightgown. Her insecurities rapidly turn to histrionics, a kind of gothic self-immolation stemming from romantic/sexual frustration where she has fainting spells on the stone turrets, and climbs the treacherous library stairs to be rescued damsel-like by a reluctant Luke. This leads to further rejection that she is too much of a risk, unfit for the experiment, and a final pronouncement that she is less than ordinary, nothing special.
Claire Bloom is also perfectly cast as the hip, chic (dig the Mary Quant threads), sexually ambiguous, Theo. The Nell/Theo relationship is the strongest (and most painful) in the book, pouring rubbing alcohol into the paper-cut of female friendships that are commonly marked by quick intimacy and secret sharing turning on a dime into cold-hearted bitchiness and rejection. Throwing those sisterly secrets–you killed your mother–right back in each other’s faces. I suspect that it was Theo who wrote the message on the wall, and it could be her red nail polish on her clothes and not blood. To keep her alpha girl status, she steals the boy (even though she’s probably gay) and wears Nell’s new red sweater just for spite.
Women with mother complexes are particularly vulnerable to the viciousness of female friendships, and in that respect Eleanor hauls into Hill House a motherlode of issues. The death of her mother finally releases her from eleven years of bedpan slavery, but her guilt over not answering her mother’s real or imagined nocturnal knocking on the wall (can you blame her?) remains. The invitation to Hill House offers that thing Eleanor longs for: an identity, and maybe even reassurance that she is not only misunderstood, but special. Her introvert’s wet dream, however, soon turns to ash when her new BFF and the two men in the house begin treating her with the same disdain as her sister and brother-in-law (their first inquiry at the end is about the car). Eleanor’s horror is the dread that comes from changing spouses, jobs or seeking geographic cures only to discover that the problem is not your boss, it’s you. The true horror that you can never escape is yourself.