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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Cold, Fearful Places

The Haunting of Shirley Jackson

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In the best ghost stories, often the real haunted entity is not a place or an object, but the central character—haunted, that is, by the character’s psyche. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is one of the best.

The Haunting is one of two novels included in a new collection, Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories (Library of America) by the author associated with fiction of the supernatural and psychological terror, the second being We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The Lottery, a volume of stories containing the much-anthologized story of that title, and Other Stories and Sketches comprise the remainder of the collection.

The Castle is the creepier of the two novels, but The Haunting is better known. It was twice made into a movie, excellently in 1963 and execrably in 1999. Protagonist Eleanor Vance, 32, is one of the solitary, mousy women Jackson specializes in. She is single, unhappy, angry and friendless. “During the whole underside of her life”—quite a telling phrase, that—“ever since her first memory, Eleanor had been waiting for something like Hill House.”

She goes to the long-unoccupied, supposedly haunted New England mansion, at the request of the psychologist Dr. Montague, a sort of mid-20th-century William James, chasing psychic phenomena. He wants to use Eleanor’s reputed past involvement with poltergeist manifestations in his researches at the house.

Also invited to help with research is a young woman named Theodora with a reputation for telepathic abilities. Eleanor’s polar opposite, she is outgoing, optimistic and mischievous.

Making up a foursome is Luke Sanderson, whose aunt owns the house he stands to inherit. Luke is a cheerful liar, thief and frequenter of bad companions. Waiting on them part-time are Mr. and Mrs. Dudley, a caretaker and a housekeeper from just this side of the River Styx.

While driving to Hill House, Eleanor travels in a bubble of fantasy, sparking pleasant fairy-tale existences from places and objects she passes. Fantasies are what Eleanor has in place of a life; among them is that she might find at Hill House the friendship, the family, to replace the family that does not care for her and that she has abandoned.

Yet when she gets there she thinks, “The house was vile. She shivered and thought … get away from here at once.”

Later, as mysterious happenings mount, Montague says, “Hill House … has been unfit for human habitation for upwards of 20 years.” It has a fearful history and reputation, “and it watches every move you make.” He thinks it wrong—“silly”—of them to remain.

We experience the novel from inside Eleanor’s head, seeing what she sees and thinking what she thinks. Throughout the question is raised, in the reader and in Eleanor herself: Is the spooky stuff really happening or is it all in her mind?

The “ghosts” do appear to be real. The other three experience manifestations along with Eleanor. Could they be caused by her poltergeist? This and other questions readers are left to answer for themselves.

All four constantly go wrong in the house because of its queer, confusing design, “a masterpiece of architectural misdirection,” Montague comments. Doors swing shut by themselves; there are unpleasant smells; an intense cold spot; frightening poundings on doors; soft, unnerving laughter and other creepy sounds.

The novel ends with the same words it began: “Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for 80 years and might stand for 80 more. Within … whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Eleanor was a victim, perhaps of Hill House, but certainly of herself.

As for the short stories, The Lottery is one of the best known of the previous century. It once was almost impossible to graduate from an American high school without having been assigned the story. But The Daemon Lover is its equal in frightening ambiguity, and its nameless, 34-year-old female protagonist could be the twin of Eleanor Vance. Like Eleanor, she lives a fantasy life, having created for herself a lover who, she believes, is coming that day to marry her. What her life actually might be is as intriguingly puzzling as the reason for the ritual stoning in The Lottery.

However, the stories also show a pleasing diversity, from lighthearted romantic pieces to the macabre. Yet common elements lie behind them. Nearly all revolve around women, or women and children, for whom the world can be a cold, fearful, even alien place. Most give off a sense of the isolation and loneliness of the individual. A few are set in small towns, which most often are closed, exclusive, unwelcoming places.

On their deceptive surface, the stories call back a world lost to us now—a world of Saturday afternoon movies with serials, of traveling by passenger train, of women whose primary work was in the home and of men who came home from work to read the newspaper—and of casually heavy drinking and smoking by both. A world of ordinary people living through ordinary days, but which, through Shirley Jackson’s startling imagination, was turned into something quite extraordinary indeed.