Our local Science Fiction/Horror Reading Group is discussing Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House this month. This short novel was originally published in 1959, and still remains highly influential on the subgenre of haunted house stories. Though owing some of its modern understanding of spectral phenomena to Henry James—see his “The Turn of the Screw” (1898) and “The Jolly Corner” (1908)—Jackson’s book is especially chilling as it intimately explores the psychic demise of her lead character Eleanor during her visit to Hill House. There are some interesting parallels between The Haunting of Hill House and some earlier works of horror and the supernatural that appeared a few decades earlier.
For example, here is Professor Montague’s description of the architecture of Hill House:
“…Every angle”—and the doctor gestured toward the doorway—“every angle is slightly wrong. Hugh Crain must have detested other people and their sensible squared-away houses, because he made his house to suit his mind. Angles which you assume are the right angles you are accustomed to, and have every right to expect are true, are actually a fraction of a degree off in one direction of another…Of course the result of all these tiny aberrations of measurement adds up to a fairly large distortion in the house as a whole.”
Wilcox, the psychic artist in “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928) might have commented that “…the geometry of the place is all wrong.” Later on in Jackson’s book, both female characters will describe alterations of perspective that give them the sensation of walking up walls, a confusion similar to that experienced by the doomed landing party that clambers about the periphery of R’lyeh. The architectural weirdness of Hill House also recalls another Lovecraftian real estate offering, Walter Gilman’s room in Keziah Mason’s old house, which was
…of good size but queerly irregular shape; the north wall slanting perceptibly inward form the outer to the inner end, while the low ceiling slanted gently downward in the same direction...As time wore along, his absorption in the irregular wall and ceiling of his room increased; for he began to read into the odd angles a mathematical significance, which seemed to offer vague clues regarding their purpose.
In Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1933), as in Jackson’s Hill House, the structure of the dwelling itself is a manifestation of its evil power, almost independent of whatever malign entity resides there. (See also Another Witch-House Tenant.)
Jackson describes Hill House as a structure “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…” That a house could be an evil place, and remain so across generations down through time, is an ancient idea. Dr. Montague lectures Eleanor and her housemates:
“…I need not remind you, I think, that 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.”
This is the assumption underlying Clark Ashton Smith’s 1933 story “The Devotee of Evil”. (See also Unseen, Unfeared, and Unheard.) The mad occult scientist Jean Averaud needs the old Larcom house in which to operate his peculiar device—a set of gongs so tuned as to “neutralize with their sound-pitch all other cosmic vibrations than those of evil.” At one point, the megalomaniac Averaud explains his real estate decision to Philip Hastane. (Hastane is Smith’s psychic investigator, a version of Lovecraft’s Randolph Carter or William Hope Hodgson’s John Cornacki.) Averaud says:
“I will confess that I have purchased this old mansion and its grounds mainly on account of their baleful history. The place is unusually liable to the influences of which I have spoken. I am now at work on an apparatus by means of which, when it is perfected, I hope to manifest in their essential purity the radiations of malign force.”
This will not end well.
Smith provides the “baleful” history of Larcom house at the beginning of “The Devotee of Evil”. It includes one murder, several accidental deaths, and insanity. Similarly, in Shirley Jackson’s book, at least five people have died on the premises of Hill House before Eleanor even arrives.
The plot of The Haunting of Hill House will be very familiar to fans of haunted house entertainments, because it has been repeated so many times: an occult expert and a collection of personalities is somehow driven by fate and circumstance to spend several nights—or perhaps just one night—in an evil old house. Science and reason arrive in the form of an earnest researcher or two, but their rationality and hubris are no match for the malevolent forces that soon surround them.
Jackson’s characters, especially Eleanor, but to some extent the other guests as well, fall prey to the influence of the previous occupants, taking on their attitudes, confusing their own memories with those of others, reciting snatches of conversation and song lyrics, or reiterating lines of thought that were not originally their own, but for which they have some vulnerability or resonance. This happens because there are elements in their personal lives that parallel those of the previous owners.
What sets Jackson’s novel apart from earlier ghost stories is her conceptualization of the nature of hauntings. It is not a single entity attempting to communicate some trauma or injustice or warning to the unwary living, nor an evil, vengeful ghost still preoccupied with doing harm. Instead, a haunted house is a field or venue in which certain patterns can recur, the strength of which patterns requires the assistance of naïve and malleable personalities. Thus the haunter and haunted form a symbiotic relationship, each contributing energy and guidance to the others’ disturbance.
It may be that Hill House contains an egregore, or a phenomenon very akin to one. An egregore can be defined as a kind of undifferentiated energy that takes form from the preconceived notions of humans sensitive enough to detect its presence, interact with it, and perhaps worship or invoke it. Eleanor, from whose point of view The Haunting of Hill House is told, does nearly all of these things at various times in the novel. An egregore can draw its power and shape from the imagination and the attention of those who believe in it, seeming to take on a life, will and agency of its own. It helps greatly if one has a previous history with poltergeist phenomena, as Eleanor does.
Stephen King, in Danse Macabre (2010 edition) discusses Shirley Jackson’s book as an example of the haunted house as a kind of mirror to a troubled soul. He notes that the popularity of haunted houses—insofar as the house is the soul or mind—is correlated with the rise of self-help literature and alternative, holistic therapies aimed at uniting the mind and body. “Correlated”, as in H.P. Lovecraft’s insight that “The most merciful thing in the world…is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” Which correlation is what Eleanor in Jackson’s novel experiences as a result of her stay at Hill House.
Jackson uses subtle references and recurring imagery to show how Eleanor’s experiences parallel those of the original tenants of the house. She’s a “match” in a number of ways: she cared for her invalid mother until the woman died, in the same way a doomed caregiver earlier looked after the older female heir to the estate. Eleanor disputed her sister for parts of their deceased mother’s estate, just as Hugh Crain’s daughters did after his demise.
There are other interesting dynamics. Eleanor’s isolation as the sole caregiver to her mother prevented her from having relationships with men, so it is interesting to see how Eleanor relates to the men of Hill House—Dr. Montague, a father figure, Luke, the foppish heir to the estate, Mr. Dudley, the brutish, low-class caretaker of the house, and the mysterious Hugh Crain, now deceased, who designed Hill House, and is responsible for its oddities. Then there’s Theodora, a free spirit who may also be a lesbian—female dyads, most of them problematic, occur several times in the book.
Readers may wonder if Eleanor’s house mates are merely aspects of her personality. She actually asks this question in the book. In some respects a house, either in a dream, or the haunted variety, is emblematic of the mind, with its hidden rooms, forgotten secrets, hidden treasures—and dark horrors. That a house or dwelling is a metaphor representing the mind or soul of its inhabitant has been addressed in earlier posts. (See also Your Head is a Haunted House: Thoughts on Horror,...)
Hence the familiar depiction of the façade of a haunted house as a baleful human face—Jackson uses this familiar trope initially, but soon overturns a number of conventions about haunted houses. Spectral phenomena occur during broad daylight and not just at night; they involve several people at once rather than a sole observer. It’s also interesting how Jackson makes Hill House a part of the landscape—a cloistered dead space for sure, but one with a magnetic influence on people at some distance, and with effects that extend into the neighboring landscape of hills, woods, and brook. Even Eleanor’s arrival at the house seems unavoidable.
On a nuts and bolts level, Jackson’s artful, grammatically complex sentences recall those of Henry James, and cleverly simulate the twists and turns of Eleanor’s thoughts as she descends into psychic possession. It is Eleanor’s mind that is haunted, not by a single entity like a ghost, but a pattern: a sequence of events and troublesome relationships. Eleanor and her fellow tenants are acting out an idea—more powerful and persuasive because not entirely known or conscious. Their personalities and individual histories connect them to what went on before, and so doom them to a reenactment.
This may be the creepiest aspect of the book—that we are not, strictly speaking, individuals with free will or independence. We are rather components of a larger pattern, vulnerable to recycling through a previous traumatic event involving others who loosely resemble us. A scary thought: that we are not really individuals at all but mere props or components of an idea that reiterates itself through time.