Monday, January 13, 2014

The Haunting of Hill House

I maybe not be ghost territory is a conclusion to draw from reading Shirley Jackson's classic novel that the Wall Street Journal described as, "now widely recognised as the greatest haunted house story ever written."

It is beautifully written with the set pieces of encroaching terror being always suggested rather than told, skilfully seen from their impacting the psyche of the four main characters, rather than described to the reader. It is, also, provided with appropriate comic relief - the Dudleys as caretakers, withdrawing at six each evening, caricatures of the relentlessly faithful but surly retainers and Mrs Montague, the wife of the organiser of the house's investigation, who 'communicates' with the dead through her planchette but remains oblivious to the actual hauntings!

The story ends tragically when one of the four, believing that she has found her 'home' is sent away by the other three, fearing for her balance and her safety, only to have her drive into a tree as she leaves the grounds either as a deliberate gesture to stay 'at home' or as the act of an unbalanced personality. Was she, we are left to surmise, a woman possessed by whatever evil patrols (or is) the house or simply, and sadly, a fragile woman who succumbed to suggestion (though it is never suggested that the hauntings are anything but real to the four who endure them).

This is, I think, the source of my reservation - the hauntings are real yet the conclusion is ambiguous. It is as if a showing forth of an imagined world is stolen from us at the last moment. We cannot truly succumb to possession and die horribly (from an external point of view) and return to a 'devouring' home (that might, in fact, be our home). There must be a flattening ending that suggests that maybe it is simply a sad tragedy of an individual fragile life. It drains the horror and the sense of other worlds enfolded in this one, some of which may not 'be nice'!

Hauntings of this kind, ultimately, are too insubstantial - psychological not metaphysical. They sit as (good) explorations of the characters experience but not of transcendence. Entertainments of the suspension of disbelief not the creation (or revelation) of believable alternate worlds. I am left wanting either something 'trashier' or 'deeper' not the merely beautifully clever.


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