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Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Listening, Remembering "The Haunting of Hill House" by Shirley Jackson

A review by Kitty Griffin

Oh college and term papers, yes, things remembered.
That seems a lifetime ago, a different life, a different time, same person.

Something has stirred the dust of memory. Something has stirred and encouraged me to go into the attic and find the little door in the corner where a term paper is stored.
“The Evil of Innocence—the Work of Shirley Jackson” by Kitty Griffin.

I can’t even begin to describe how intensely I read as a kid. In high school I devoured books. One of the authors I discovered was Shirley Jackson. What did I like about her stories? They were about ordinary things that in a different light became wholly unordinary things. They were about delightful, delicate dreams that suddenly turned on the dreamer, grabbing them by the throat and throttling them. They were about characters proceeding with everyday life in innocence, only to let the readers discover to our horror their absolute evil. (A prime example of this is the story that everyone reads in high school, “The Lottery.” )

((If you haven’t read it, do so.))

I just purchased the audio version of “The Haunting of Hill House” written by Shirley Jackson and read aloud by Bernadette Dunne.

Now I remember. I remember writing so skillfully done that it is like being cut with a blade so intensely sharp that until you see blood dripping you don’t realize you’ve been cut. Jackson is a wordsmith who gives us these empathetic innocent characters who invite you into the dark recesses of their horror and when you want desperately to look away, you can’t because you just have to find out what the hell happens.  

Here is the opening to “The Haunting of Hill House”

“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.”

It still gives me shudders.

The book gives us the first character, Eleanor Vance, a 32-year-old single woman who for most of her adult life took care of a spiteful, ungrateful ailing mother. Now, without a job, without means, Eleanor is offered a chance to do something exciting. She’s offered the chance to help with a scientific experiment at a place called Hill House. When her sister and brother-in-law tell her she cannot take the car (which is half Eleanor’s), Eleanor, in a burst of bravery, sneaks into the garage and takes it.

Now I give you a sample of the evil of innocence, because here you will be spun into the web of one of Eleanor’s day dreams…and you will find yourself understanding it, delighting in it, and you will be captured by Eleanor’s innocence.

“On the main street of one village she passed a vast house, pillared and walled, with shutters over the windows and a pair of stone lions guarding the steps, and she thought that perhaps she might live there, dusting the lions each morning and patting their heads good night. Time is beginning this morning in June, she assured herself, but it is a time that is strangely new and of itself, in these few seconds I have lived a lifetime in a house with two lions in front. Every morning I swept the porch and dusted the lions, and every evening I patted their heads good night and once a week I washed their faces and manes and paws with warm water and soda and cleaned between their teeth with a swab. Inside the house the rooms were tall and clear with shining floors and polished windows. A little dainty old lady took care of me, moving starchily with a sliver tea service on a tray and bringing me a glass of elderberry wine each evening for my health’s sake. I took my dinner alone in the long, quiet dining room at the gleaming table, and between the tall windows the white paneling of the walls shone in the candlelight; I dined upon a bird, and radishes from the garden, and homemade plum jam. When I slept it was under a canopy of white organdy, and a nightlight guarded me from the hall. People bowed to me on the streets because everyone was very proud of my lions. When I died…”

Do you see how easily we moved into Eleanor’s daydream? So smoothly. I can feel the stone lions. I can imagine washing them, cleaning them. Those utterly delicate details that attach you to both character and story!

And just as smoothly Jackson begins to reveal the horror of Hill House. Not with a headless horseman ghost dashing through the dining room, but with doors and windows that close by themselves. Doors and windows shutting out fresh air, keeping what’s outside out and what’s inside in.

And just when you think you know or you understand what is going on in Hill House, Jackson shuts that window and slams that door and takes your breath away.

It is a work of horror done with such delicate skill that makes this story a classic.

The reading by Bernadette Dunne is just as exquisite. She changes her voice just enough for each character. Her calm, resonant voice pulls you in with the same surgical skill as Jackson’s writing so that when it’s time to be terrified, you really are.

Black Cat on Chincoteague Island, VA by K. Griffin

1 comment:

  1. I love your analysis--wickedness in good--which even applies when Jackson writes about ordinary family life. (See her short story Charles, in which a mother is both fascinated and slightly alarmed by her son's daily reports of the exploits of his schoolroom's "bad boy.")