Thursday, October 17, 2013

Help Eleanor Come Home...

So, with the season upon us, I dug out Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, figuring a good old fashioned ghost story might help me get in the mood.

And given how much this book managed to influence just about every haunted house story that came after it, it's not a bad thing.

The book focuses on Eleanor, a very childlike woman with a history of poltergeist activity surrounding her in her youth. Eleanor essentially runs away from her sister, who didn't particularly want Eleanor to run off on some strange adventure. And given Eleanor thinks she hit someone on her way out of the parking garage, her sister's fears are probably warranted.

Anyway, due to her previous experience with the preternatural, Dr. Montague has invited Eleanor and a few others to come investigate Hill House for the summer and help prove the existence of ghosts. The main other one being Theodora, the bohemian who becomes something of a friend and occasional antagonist to Eleanor. Theo is probably a lesbian, although this comes through mainly as subtext. (Evidently, one couldn't really discuss sexuality in 1959.) The secondary other one is the drunken heir to Hill House, Luke.

The caretakers don't like the house, and remind everyone that they won't be in the house after dark.

Hill House itself is a character. All the angles are off. The house is plagued with a history of suicides and murders.

As the book goes on, we see haunting events that everyone experiences, and a few that only Eleanor is privy to. Also, many of them are left intentionally vague, leaving up to us, the reader, to figure out why Theo is telling Eleanor to run. Most of the manifestations that we do get to witness involve standards such as pounding on the walls, door knobs turning on their own accord. Then we get personal ones like Eleanor becoming convinced it wasn't Theo's hand she was clutching in the dark.

Eleanor, to put it quite succinctly, is a few fries short of a happy meal. One of the biggest questions is whether the haunting is all in Eleanor's head, or just being magnified by her presence in the house. Given that she sort of gets sucked into the house about 2/3 of the way through, I rather tend to think there's an actual presence in the house, although I'm with Dr. Montague in my opinion that the house isn't doing Eleanor's sanity any favors.

I won't spoil the ending for anyone, but wow.

A few side notes here. The book has been made into movies twice to my knowledge. One, The Haunting (1963), is quite good. It make Eleanor a bit older, but otherwise stays pretty close to the book. Plus Theo in the movie is a pretty good example of how Hollywood got away with portraying lesbians in cinema, when they weren't causing innocent girls to commit suicide.

The other that I know of was 1999's The Haunting. Which not even a pretty good cast could save from a horrible script that changed around just about every detail from the book and buried any sense of suspense under a sea of bad CGI.

I also found out while doing research that The Haunting of Hill House is what inspired Steven King's Rose Red. And having re-read the book now, why yes.

I'll also add that Jackson's short story, "The Lottery" should be required reading.