Monday, July 21, 2014

THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson, and an interesting parallel

After many years, I finally reread The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson's deservedly famous horror novel. I hadn't been too impressed with it when I first read it back in the 80s, but upon rereading it I was rather surprised at parts I didn't remember, things I somehow missed back then. At the time I'd seen the film on video quite a few times (I rented it regularly at my favorite video store) and perhaps I was too wowed by the film to really appreciate the novel. Maybe.

The Haunting of Hill House is one of the all-time classics, both of the horror genre and of literature in general. Horror is a genre that frequently works best in the short-story format, and many horror novels end up being drawn-out and tedious. But Haunting works spectacularly well at its novel length; it NEEDS to be novel-length.

The novel concerns itself with Prof. Montague, who gathers a group of people to spend a summer at Hill House, a notoriously haunted New England mansion. His small group is Luke, a wastrel member of the family who owns the house, and hopes to inherit it one day; Theodora, a bohemian artist (and possible esbian, which is played up in the movie) who has ESP, and Eleanor Vance, who experienced poltergeist phenomena as a child. Eleanor is the central character of the novel; at 32, she has spent the last 11 years of her life caring for her invalid mother and never really living her own life. Her mother has recently died, Eleanor (Nell) is venturing out of her neurotic repression, but isn't up to the menace of Hill House.

You may remember some of its terrors from the 1963 movie...the pounding on the walls, the writing, Nell's final madness...although the movie plays up the ambiguity that the haunting may exist partially in Nell's mind, and it may be the result of latent telekinetic powers going berserk as her sanity crumbles. But it leaves out some memorable eerie events from the book, although one would have been difficult to film, and some occur outside, while the film keeps the action firmly within the house's walls until the end, keeping up the atmosphere of claustrophobia.

But one thing that really stood out for me was the way in which it's a psychological novel, delving into Eleanor's troubled mind, her desire to belong, her bitterness at her family, her dream of finding love, all that...and it called to mind another movie I'd seen recently and loved, the 1941 Bette Davis classic, Now, Voyager.

Based on a novel by Olive Higgins Prouty, Now, Voyager is the tale of Charlotte Vale, a plain, neurotic spinster who has been kept on a short leash by an overbearing and brutally controlling mother. She has a nervous breakdown and is institutionalized for a few months, then goes on a cruise where she finds the love of her life. It's actually a lot more modern than it seems (I'm leaving out a number of story developments, so go watch it for yourself if you don't know it).

There's a lot that's pretty obvious: both concern neurotic, repressed, mother-dominated women who are never allowed to grow up and be their own person. Both go on a voyage that changes their respective lives. But while Prouty's heroine has a breakdown, therapy, then goes on her journey, Jackson's Nell has her journey, then her breakdown. But Nell obviously hopes for some romance, for something to change her life and make it whole. All through the book she keeps using the phrase "Journeys end in lovers meeting," and there are flirtations with Luke (and some subtle overtures from Theodora), but ultimately it seems her lover is destined to be Hill House itself.

In fact, Nell's expectations seem to be a result of reading Prouty's work and other "women's novels" and "women's films" of the period, that usually depicted women suffering glamorously and then rewarded with True Love. (Prouty is a bit different; she dared to show the mother/daughter relationship as a destructive one, and her heroine eventually comes to value autonomy over conventional marriage.) It makes sense; Now, Voyager was published in 1941, and The Haunting of Hill House in 1959. I can't help but have the feeling that Jackson was at least in part commenting on a generation of women entering the Space Age but raised on the women-directed media of the 40s and 50s.

So, read 'em both and see what you think. Jackson's novel has never been out of print; Prouty's is available in print and as an ebook, currently being rediscovered as a minor landmark in feminist literature. Or watch the movies; both are quite close to their source material and both are bona fide cinematic classics.

1 comment:

Lawrence Roy Aiken said...

My take on HAUNTING is that it wasn't the haunted house that killed Eleanor, it was her fellow humans deliberately othering and isolating Eleanor from the rest of the group. Once Luke started flirting with Theodora, Theodora -- who was clearly a lesbian, and on the outs with partner -- moved in on Luke out of sheer spite to Eleanor. Once that happened, Eleanor was all but finished. Prof. Montague was dismissive of Eleanor when not ignoring her outright. He was so comically wrapped up in the distractions of the house that he missed the real horror befalling Eleanor. By the end everyone spoke with Eleanor like she was mildly retarded, often barely tolerating her, and not taking her the least bit seriously as a human being. If, as strongly implied by the final paragraph, Eleanor's spirit became one with the house -- in which every part does precisely what it's made to do (like a dutiful daughter, perhaps?), which is partly why the house is "not sane" -- it's because what passed for humanity around her cut her off.

I haven't read HAUNTING in 20 years, but that's what stuck with me.