Published in the 2006 Penguin Classics edition
Like all good ghost stories, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House sets a trap for its protagonist. In the classic version of the form, as established by the British writer M.R. James, the hero is a gentleman of mildly investigatory bent: a scholar, a collector or antiquarian. What lures him into the vicinity of the ghost is often intellectual curiosity and occasionally greed; what attracts the ghost's wrath or malevolence is the hero's tendency to meddle, to open the sealed room, to root around for treasure, to pocket a souvenir. The hero ("victim" might be a better word) typically hasn't got much personality beyond his intrusiveness. He's just someone inclined to put himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and to rue the consequences.
What makes The Haunting of Hill House a great ghost story is that Jackson also sets a trap for her readers. Eleanor Vance, the young woman around whom the uncanny events of the novel constellate, is no mere snoop. She is drawn into this adventure, the narrator implies, by the house itself, and the terrible things that happen there emerge from and express her inner life. Eleanor is a genuine literary character rather than a device of the narrative. She is a complicated and distinctive individual, peculiar even, although not so peculiar that she fails to engage the reader's sympathy. We experience the novel from within Eleanor's consciousness, and however unreliable we know her to be, we are wedded to her. When the house infiltrates her psyche, the reader, so thoroughly bound up in her, is also invaded. When the ground pitches and ripples beneath her feet, we are unsteadied, too. When Eleanor is snared, so are we. Most ghost stories offer a cozy, armchair chill or two, but The Haunting of Hill House exudes a lingering, clammy dread.
The true antecedents of The Haunting of Hill House are not the traditional English ghost stories of M.R. James or Sheridan LeFanu, or even the gothic fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, but the ghostly tales of Henry James. The Turn of the Screw, another short novel about a lonely, imaginative young woman in a big isolated house, is a probable influence, and so, perhaps, is "The Jolly Corner," the story of a middle-aged aesthete who roams the empty rooms of his childhood home, haunted by the specter of the man he would have been if he had lived his life differently. The ghost story is a small genre to begin with, but its subgenre, the psychological ghost story, the category to which The Haunting of Hill House and Henry James' tales belong, is tinier still. The literary effect we call horror turns on the dissolution of boundaries, between the living and the dead, of course, but also, at the crudest level, between the outside of the body and everything that ought to stay inside. In the psychological ghost story, the dissolving boundary is the one between the mind and the exterior world. During the third major manifestation at Hill House, as Eleanor's resistance begins to buckle, she thinks, "how can these others hear the noise when it is coming from inside my head?"
The psychological ghost story is as much about the puzzle of identity as it is about madness. The governess in The Turn of the Screw yearns to be a heroine, to do something brave and noble, and to attract the attention of the dashing employer whose sole directive is that she never, ever bother him. She wants to be someone else. Without the mission of protecting her two young charges from mortal danger, she's merely a woman squandering her youth in the middle of nowhere, taking care of children who will only grow up to leave her behind. Is the house she presides over haunted by the ghost of brutish Peter Quint and his lover, her predecessor, the sexually degraded Miss Jessel? Or is it haunted by some half-formed, half-desired alternate version of the nameless governess herself? Eleanor may be the target of The Haunting of Hill House, or she may be the one doing the haunting. After all, Dr. Montague invited her to participate in the project because of a poltergeist incident during her childhood.
In the 1930s, the critic Edmund Wilson advanced the theory that the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw did not exist at all, that they were manifestations of the governess' neuroses, arising from sexual frustration. The manifestations in The Haunting of Hill House are more palpable; as Dr. Montague points out, Eleanor is not the only one who hears and sees them. But they could just possibly be caused by her poltergeist, a primitive, spiteful, violent, unthinking force, rather than by the house itself. It should be said that both James and Jackson gave every indication that they considered the ghosts in their short novels to be "real" within the fictional world that their books describe. Jackson, who had a lifelong interest in the occult, who dabbled in spells and liked to tell reporters that she was a witch, professed to believe in ghosts. But both of these writers were too preoccupied with the notion that people are attended by multiple, imaginary versions of themselves to be unaware of the nonsupernatural implications of their ghost stories.
Shirley Jackson often wrote about solitary, mousy young women. In addition to Eleanor Vance, who spends eleven years caring for her querulous invalid mother, Jackson's protagonists include a wallflower college freshman who invents an imaginary female friend (in the 1951 novel, Hangsaman) and a young woman who suffers from multiple personality disorder and blames herself for her mother's death (in the 1954 novel The Bird Nest). Jackson's attraction to stories that pair fragile, lonely girls with more daring alter egos continued after The Haunting of Hill House. In her last novel and masterpiece, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), two reclusive and unstable sisters hole up in the family mansion after the rest of their relatives are wiped out by a mysterious incident involving a poisoned sugar bowl.
It may come as a surprise, then, that although Jackson did love big old houses, she wrote her novels of spooky isolation from the midst of a large, boisterous family. With her husband, the notable critic and academic Stanley Edgar Hyman, Jackson presided over a household that included four children, an indeterminate number of cats and an endless rotation of guests and visitors, including several great mid-century American literary figures. At times, their life resembled a continuous party, fueled, to the detriment of their health, by liberal amounts of alcohol, rich food and cigarettes. Their friends included Ralph Ellison, Howard Nemerov and Bernard Malamud, but Jackson and Hyman held their own. "I have always thought of them as giants," one friend told Judy Oppenheimer, Jackson's biographer. "Not physically. They just had more life than most people do." It was an opinion Nemerov seconded: "You got impressions of immense personal power from both of them ... Enormous confidence."
As a writer, Jackson developed a lucrative sideline producing witty autobiographical sketches of her endearingly chaotic family life for women's magazines. The pieces, collected in two popular volumes, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, were how some of her readers knew her best. The contrast between these essentially sunny vignettes and Jackson's much darker fiction -- especially the short story "The Lottery," which caused a sensation when it was published in the New Yorker in 1948 and has been widely anthologized, to the terror of countless schoolchildren, since -- must have baffled those fans who came to her work from the pages of Good Housekeeping. Shirley Jackson's two authorial personas were equally authentic; she prided herself on as much on her generous mothering and culinary skills, as on her cool literary examinations of human wickedness. Still, the difficulty of integrating these contradictory selves surely contributed to the way the women in her novels tend to come in pairs.
It's striking, for example, that a writer who depicted the sisterly bond with such passion had no sister of her own. Jackson was born, in 1916, to handsome middle-class parents in San Francisco and raised with her younger brother in one of the city's affluent suburbs. To her elegant, conventional mother, Jackson -- ungainly, eccentric, brilliant and plain -- was a perennial vexation. The relationship would torment Jackson, too, for the rest of her life. She would alternate between defying her parents (by marrying a Jew, by refusing to live up to her mother's standards of grooming, by becoming fat) and trying to outdo them. In Jackson's letters home, Oppenheimer detects a tireless campaign to camouflage stresses and crises while presenting Jackson's family life as more warm and loving than the one her mother provided. The demanding, cold and critical mothers who figure in Jackson's fiction, including Eleanor's own dead-but-not-gone parent, owe much to Geraldine Jackson.
Jackson's parents moved the family east, to Rochester, New York, when Shirley was sixteen. After a disastrous stint at the nearby University of Rochester, she finally began to establish her independence at Syracuse University. Hyman, one of the student body's Young Turks, read a story Jackson published in the college newspaper and announced that he was going to marry the author. It was entirely in character that two years later that's exactly what he did. After a few unsatisfactory years in New York City apartments, the couple and their two oldest children moved to North Bennington, Vermont, where Hyman, who had been working as a staff writer for the New Yorker, got a job teaching at Bennington College. Most of the faculty's families lived in on-campus housing, but Jackson insisted on living in town.
It was a choice that perpetuated her outsider status. Jackson didn't want to be subsumed into the college as a faculty wife, but she didn't fit into old rural New England, either. Xenophobic, tight-lipped and possibly inbred Yankee country folk begin to make appearances in her fiction at this point. A small town in Vermont is the setting for "The Lottery," and the town square where the locals gather to ritually stone to death one of their citizens was based on the square in North Bennington. Jackson told one friend the story was about anti-Semitism, a prejudice she felt keenly in North Bennington, but it's likely that she would have been excluded even if her husband had been a WASP. North Bennington was the kind of place where you were considered a newcomer unless your grandfather had been born there.
The houses were another matter. In Life Among the Savages, Jackson combined into one the family's two beloved houses (a rental and later a purchase) in North Bennington. She described this slightly phantasmagorical composite home as "old, noisy and full," a marked contrast to Hill House, with its empty halls and preternatural silence (most of the time, at least). But Jackson also saw her houses as having wills of their own, including insistent ideas about how their rooms should be arranged. "After a few vain attempts at imposing our own angular order on things," she wrote, "with a consequent out-of-jointness and shrieking disharmony that set our teeth on edge, we gave in to the old furniture and let things settle where they would." Her daughter, she said, claimed to hear "a far away voice in the house that sang to her at night," and there was "door to an attic that preferred to stay latched and would latch itself no matter who was inside," as well as "another door which hung by custom slightly ajar, although it would close goodhumoredly for a time when some special reason required it."
The good humor of the house in Life Among the Savages and the malevolence of Hill House are phenomena of the same order, despite the difference in tenor. The big, old, semi-personified manse is a fixture of gothic literature, as Jackson, who boned up on ghost stories in preparation for writing The Haunting of Hill House, well knew. But she had always had a fascination with the various ways people and the spaces they occupy influence each other; of the divided heroine of "The Bird's Nest," she wrote, "It is not proven that Elizabeth's personal equilibrium was set off balance by the set of the office floor, nor could it be proven that it was Elizabeth who pushed the building off its foundations, but it is undeniable that they began to slip at about the same time" The gothic house can stand for any number of things, depending on the interpretative inclination of the observer: sexuality, the female body, the family, the psyche. All of those understandings, with the exception of sex -- a topic Jackson avoided -- apply to Hill House.
Jackson's ghost story, published in 1959 was a hit; it became a bestseller, the critics praised it, and the movie rights sold for a goodly sum. The incipient madness of Eleanor Vance seemed to affect her creator, though -- or perhaps it was the other way around. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is narrated by girl who is even more disturbed; at one point, she sets the house on fire to scare off her sister's suitor. Jackson, a mercurial personality at best and aggravated by the prescription amphetamines she took like aspirin, experienced her own psychic disintegration not long after finishing "Castle," a breakdown triggered when one in her husband's many affairs with Bennington students took an uncharacteristically serious turn. Eventually, Jackson pulled herself together with the help of a psychiatrist, but the burden of so many years worth of bad habits proved to be harder to conquer. She died in her sleep, of cardiac arrest, at age 48.
The Haunting of Hill House, after "The Lottery," is the work most often associated with Jackson, but she is no longer widely read. This isn't necessarily surprising; the successful novelists of one generation often evaporate from the awareness of the next, and it probably didn't help her reputation in literary circles that she sometimes wrote as a kind of thinking-woman's Erma Bombeck. (Then even more than now, the domestic realm was viewed as insufficiently serious.) Still, Jackson's clean, terse style and her tough-mindedness ought to appeal to the kind of readers who keep Patricia Highsmith and James M. Cain in print today. In a way, Jackson was a kindred spirit to the hard-boiled genre novelists of her time. She also depicted the cruel jokes of fate and chance unfolding in an amoral universe. It's just that instead of doing it with men and guns, she chose to write about mad, lonely girls and big, sinister houses.
The prevailing mood of The Haunting of Hill House, the spell of the book that so many readers have found so hard to shake, is one of physical and psychic claustrophobia. The surrounding hills bear down on the house, the doors and windows refuse to remain open, some rooms are entirely encased in other rooms and, as Theo puts it, the décor was designed by Victorians, who "buried themselves in folds of velvet and tassels and purple plush." It is a very comfortable place in some ways -- the beds are soft, Mrs. Dudley's cooking is excellent -- but its cushioned embrace is suffocating.
Eleanor arrives at Hill House flush with dreams of liberation, only to find herself irrevocably trapped in that embrace. She has defied her sister's authority in taking the family car, and for a few brief hours, before she arrives at Hill House, she is a quintessential American, savoring the bliss of the open road. The car, at last, "belonged entirely to her, a little contained world all her own;" the drive is a "passage of moments, each one new, carrying her along with them, taking her down a path of incredible novelty to a new place." She might stop anywhere at random, or she might "never leave the road at all, but just hurry on and on until the wheels of the car were worn to nothing and she had come to the end of the world." She stops in a restaurant for lunch and silently cheers on a little girl who refuses to drink milk out of an ordinary glass instead of her favorite "cup of stars."
Along the way Eleanor weaves the landmarks she sees into a running fantasy life that, besides a kind of smothered rage, we soon recognize to be one of her chief traits. She sees a pair of stone lions and imagines herself the chatelaine of a fine house, respected in the town, sipping elderberry wine, looked after by "a little dainty old lady." A stand of oleander trees prompts a fairy tale reverie in which Eleanor plays a long-lost princess, returned at last to the grief-stricken queen and greeted by feasting and the advent of a prince. Finally and most alluring, there is a little cottage, "buried in a garden," where she imagines living all alone, behind a wall of roses and more oleanders, where "no one would ever find me."
Fragments of these fantasies appear in the lies Eleanor will later tell Theo about her little apartment in the city, like the pieces of everyday life that turn up in dreams. Eleanor's fantasies serve as a bulwark against the actuality of her life, the grim years she spent at the beck and call of a failing, miserable mother and later, at her sister's house, the sad cot in the baby's room. Even after her mother's death, Eleanor has been relegated to the nursery, bossed around and kept on a short leash. Her identification with the likes of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty makes a certain sense; she's had an unloving family who consigned her to menial labor and refuses to let her grow up. Eleanor is drifting in and out of a dream state even before she arrives at Hill House, endlessly taking apart and reassembling bits of fantasy and experience to fashion the imagined life she hopes eventually to live.
Eleanor may be excessively dreamy, but she doesn't start out mad. Dreaming, the opening lines of the novel explain, is exactly what keeps someone from going crazy. Dreams shelter even the primitive minds of larks and katydids from those "conditions of absolute reality" that would drive any "live organism" insane. Hill House is "not sane," as the narrator informs us, so presumably it is not only alive but existing under conditions of absolute reality -- a strange assertion to make about a house, especially a haunted one. Although Eleanor's experiences at Hill House will be both bizarre and fantastic, and she will eventually become deranged enough to deliberately drive her car into a tree, what she is headed toward is not delusion but a collision with this "absolute reality." Hill House will force her to acknowledge that she will never be free, that her dreams of leaving her corrosive past and her family behind are illusions, that wherever she goes she will only find the same hell she was running away from. Escape is a mirage. This is the real horror of Hill House.
Jackson knits the circular nightmare of Eleanor's story using interlocking patterns of doubles and reversals. Eleanor's naïve hope is that at Hill House she'll find companionship to replace the family she's abandoned. The morning after the first disturbances, she arrives downstairs to breakfast with the other three researchers believing (or wanting to believe) that they "had come through the darkness of one night, they had met morning in Hill House, and they were a family, greeting one another with easy informality and going to the chairs they had used last night at dinner, their own places at the table."
The Haunting of Hill Houseis laced with broken, destructive families, with particular emphasis on volatile relations between women. The Crain sisters who quarrel bitterly over Hill House mirror Eleanor and her sister, Carrie, fighting about who gets to use the car bought with their dead mother's money. In Theo, at first, Eleanor seems to see the possibility of a "good" sister to make up for the selfish, controlling real one. The two women latch onto each other from the moment they meet with the extravagant, superficial devotion of newly acquainted schoolgirls, swapping tales of adolescent humiliations and planning picnics. Throughout, they get along best when playing tag and lolling around their rooms like sorority girls. When the friendship turns bad, as such relationships often do, they can turn spectacularly cruel.
Eleanor's crush on Luke is rather half-heartedly conveyed by Jackson; it doesn't even seem to convince Eleanor herself. During their only conversation alone together (her only conversation alone with any man, Eleanor notes), she concludes that he's "selfish," and even worse, "not very interesting." Robert Wise's fine 1963 film version of the novel, The Haunting (skip the awful 1999 remake), transfers Eleanor's affections to a glamorized Dr. Montague, a shrewd choice. But giving Eleanor a more plausible, Oedipal love object diverts attention from the novel's most charged and significant relationship, that between Eleanor and Theo. There's a small murkiness in this otherwise fiercely lucid book, around the matter of romantic love. Theo's sexuality is ambiguous; she lives with a "friend" to whom she is not married and whose gender remains coyly unspecified. At times, Eleanor's crush on Luke seems like Jackson's way of asserting that her attachment to Theo isn't erotic, and Theo's possible lesbianism is a way to state that her rivalry with Eleanor isn't over Luke.
At any rate, Eleanor's dilemmas are those of a prepubescent child, not an adult woman; sexuality requires an autonomy and a self-knowledge she hasn't got yet. Romance rarely figures in the fantasy lives she imagines for herself. Jackson seemed to see sex as an uninteresting distraction from earlier, more fundamental questions of identity. In a rambling, unsent letter to Howard Nemerov, she complained about a British academic who claimed to have detected "lesbian" themes in her first novel:
"I am writing about ambivalence but it is an ambivalence of the spirit, or the mind, not the sex ... It is not a he or a she but the demon in the mind, and that demon finds guilts where it can and uses them and runs mad with laughing when it triumphs; it is the demon which is fear ... We are afraid of being someone else and doing the things someone else wants us to do and of being taken and used by someone else, some other guilt-ridden conscience that lives on and on in our minds, something we build ourselves and never recognize, but this is fear, not a named sin. Then it is fear itself, fear of self that I am writing about ... fear and guilt and their destruction of identity."
This fear of guilt, of being commandeered by another consciousness and of the "destruction of identity," is what Eleanor confronts in Hill House. "I am like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster" she thinks when she's just arrived, "and the monster feels my tiny little movements inside." Later, this engulfing menace comes into finer focus. Recoiling from the charnel stench of the library -- something only Eleanor can smell -- she presses herself to the wall and murmurs, "'My mother-' ... not knowing what she wanted to tell them." Eleanor brings up her mother, often in a half-conscious exclamations, when the subject is prohibitions and obligations, the impropriety of women in slacks or of leaving dirty dinner dishes out all night. But the specter of Eleanor's mother also arises when Theo paints Eleanor's toenails ("I hate having things done to me... I don't like to feel helpless.... My mother--"), in the pounding on the walls and in the forlorn messages that Mrs. Montague receives through the Ouija-like planchette. The spirit, calling itself " Eleanor Nellie Nell Nell," laments that it is a "Child" and what it wants is "Home" and "Mother," but that both are "Lost. Lost. Lost. Lost."
When Eleanor finally agrees to surrender to Hill House, to bury herself in its "folds of velvet and tassels and purple plush," it is her mother she goes chasing ("You're here somewhere") through the dark halls and up the treacherous library ladder. The "lovers meeting" she has spent the whole novel humming about materializes as a return to the womb that is also a grave. To anyone who has, like Jackson, labored mightily to transcend her parents' mistakes and shortcomings, the horror underlying Eleanor's full-circle journey is real as well as ghostly. It is the recognition that the harder you try to escape the emotional dynamics of your family of origin, the more likely you are to duplicate them. It feels like fate, like doom, but is it?
Is Eleanor the victim of Hill House or of herself? She would certainly call it the former, but self-knowledge is not her forte. One evening, the four researchers discuss the roots of fear, the other three come up with viable theories: what we really fear is ourselves, or seeing ourselves clearly, or, as Theo most astutely puts it "of knowing what we really want." "I am always afraid of being alone," Eleanor offers, an astonishing remark, considering how many of her fantasies involve solitude and seclusion.
Eleanor's insight into other people is no better than her grasp of her own nature. If she listened more carefully, with less of the self-absorption and hunger for attention that she's so quick to spot and condemn in the others, she would see that her three companions have had no better luck with families than she has. "I never had a mother," Luke tells her, a lament that both Eleanor and Theo regard as the hackneyed confidence of a seducer, but that doesn't mean it isn't true. (Later, Luke's observation that Hill House is "a mother house ... Everything so soft. Everything so padded. Great embracing chairs and sofas which turn out to be hard and unwelcome when you sit down, and reject you at once," suggests he knows whereof he speaks.) From one of her passing jokes, we know that Theo spent vacations at her empty boarding school. The doctor is married (to a silly, domineering woman), but his family is also missing something; he hasn't had the chance, he explains, to test the soporific effects of Richardson's novel on small children.
For a while, these four people manage to cobble together a kind of mock romance of family life: Luke, Theo and Eleanor roll around on the grass eating wild strawberries while Dr. Montague beams down on them in fond amusement. This is just a game, though, like the excruciatingly arch banter about bullfighters, courtesans and disguised princesses they indulge in on the first night. Only Eleanor, not surprisingly, can't tell that it's not real. Theo, the one person in Hill House who offers Eleanor the difficult prospect of connection, is a flawed and prickly customer, to be sure, but she's also the one who shows her the most tender concern. When the entity haunting Hill House offers Eleanor a cold, false, phantom hand to hold, it is disguised as Theo's hand. The friction between the two women flares when Eleanor envies Theo's looks and freedom of manner (the first dig between them is Eleanor's -- sniping at Theo's appetite) or when Theo tries to coax Eleanor out of her shell or, most explosively, when she suggests that Eleanor might own some responsibility for what's happening. Theo's implication that Eleanor is not really the meek creature she appears to be may be what terrifies and infuriates Eleanor most; perhaps they both suspect that the most fearsome beast lurking in Hill House is Eleanor's stifled rage at her mother, her sister, her life, her self.
In the strangest of the novel's ghostly manifestations, Theo and Eleanor quarrel over Luke and stalk out of the house together into the night. Between them lies a knot of anger and pain but also genuine intimacy; they are acutely aware of each other: "Each knew, almost within a breath, what the other was thinking and wanting to say; each of them almost wept for the other." Eleanor has somehow blundered to the brink of a relationship in which she might learn to accommodate someone else's imperfections without hating her. At this moment, the world around the two women begins to change, the moonlit patterns of dark and light reverse themselves like a photographic negative: the path becomes dark and the surrounding trees and bushes white. "Now I am really afraid" Eleanor thinks, in "words of fire." Something moves almost imperceptibly around them in the "blackness and whiteness and evil luminous glow." Then the path ends and the two women are confronted with a hallucinatory Technicolor vision of a garden in which delighted children play with a puppy while a mother and father watch affectionately from a checked picnic blanket spread on the grass. Then Theo looks over her shoulder, sees something unspeakable (she never describes it) and screams "run!"
The scene is extraordinary, in part because whatever Theo sees while looking over her shoulder remains the one significant Hill House manifestation that Eleanor never witnesses. (There is the phantom dog that lures Dr. Montague and Luke out of the house on the night of the first manifestation, but that's just a decoy.) The two women stand, briefly suspended between a mirage of the familial idyll they have all pined for and whatever monstrous thing has driven them to it. Only Theo dares to look back.
Later, after Eleanor has been broken by the house, she insists that she will go home with Theodora. She will live near Theo and shop with her every day for the talismans of Eleanor's fantasy life: gold-rimmed dishes, a white cat, the cup of stars. Theo's flat rejection of this scenario doesn't seem to faze Eleanor at all. "Do you always go where you're not wanted?" Theo asks brutally, eliciting only the mild, self-pitying reply, "I've never been wanted anywhere." No doubt on some level Eleanor never really believes she'll leave the house with Theo -- who is, for better or worse, her only real friend; the whole plan smacks of a last jaunt through the dream world that has comforted Eleanor all her life. She has begun a negotiation with the absolute reality of her own isolation, and the slow process of dissolving into the fabric of Hill House.
The novel ends with the same lines that open it, closing the circle:
"Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its 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."
There is a moment in the car, the last moment, when Eleanor questions her choice, but it comes to late. If is Eleanor who now walks in Hill House, then she has arrived at something not too far from her dream of living in the little cottage behind the barricade by poisonous oleander. She walks alone, and that, as Theo would probably point out, is the fate that she most feared and most desired.