Due to all the books I want to read I rarely get to reread books. Last year I revisited The Turn of the Screw and that’s about it these past few years. With the new show that came out a couple years back, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson has been on my mind. It’s been fifteen years since I’ve read it and I’ve forgotten so much. All I know is that so many people have reviewed and dissected this book I wasn’t sure what I could bring to the table.
For those unfamiliar with the premise, the book is about four individuals who plan to stay at Hill House to observe any supernatural goings-ons for the summer (very early ghost hunting). The leader of the study, Dr. Montague, who is looking for validity, a relative of the owner of the estate, Luke, and two women who’ve had brief experiences with the supernatural, Theo and Eleanor.
After I was done with my reread I was stunned by what haunted me the most, which were the first and last paragraphs. Bookends that parallel each other, that really got to me at the end. Here’s the opener:
“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 nearly, 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.”
I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a haunted house described like this, that it’s insane due to its inability to dream and it is ‘absolute reality’. With this in mind, the events of Hill House seem like an inevitable domino fall the moment Eleanor decided to accept Montague’s invitation to stay for the summer.
Due to living with and taking care of her sick mother for over eleven years, all of her twenties, it’s understandable that Eleanor (aka Nell) has had enough of her reality, as she tries to figure out her life after the passing of her mother, and instead chooses to delay the inevitable.
Nell runs to Hill House full of fantasy and wonder ready for her independent life to begin. On her car ride to Hill House she dreams about how her life can be now that she’s away from her family.
Here and throughout the book Nell constantly repeats the line ‘journeys end in lovers’ meeting’ from Shakepeare’s Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night is a comedy full of mistaken identities, cross-dressing, and everyone falling in love by the end. ‘Journeys end in lovers’ meeting’ is taken from the jester’s carpe diem songs*, all about seizing the day and of course, love, because you can’t find love in the after life.
Eleanor wants a Shakepeare’ rom-com and ends up getting something far worse, a dose of harsh absolute reality. The first time she sees Hill House a major crack appears on her dream bubble. It is, as Nell puts it, disgusting.
There’s been plenty of discussion and opinions about the haunting itself, whether it’s real and the root of it. There are multiple witnesses to the happenings in and around the house, so I don’t think it’s someone’s delusion. That said I do think the source is from a single person, Eleanor.
All the way to the end Nell holds onto her fantasy that this will be her fresh start, but she then collides with a force that’s ‘absolute reality’. All of her insecurities, quirks, and doubts come screaming to the surface. Isolation has made her meek and awkward; she strives to find a new family but ultimately fails.
The devastating ending is one that will stick with me. Everything I was feeling came together as I read the last paragraph and was left with overwhelming loneliness. I know some might complain that it’s not scary but for me, this was a true horror ending.
*Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene III [O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?]