I don’t remember how old I was the first time I saw Robert Wise’s film The Haunting; all I do remember was it was late at night–in Chicago, one (maybe more) of the local affiliates always ran films after the news at 10:30; they also ran afternoon movies at 3:30 Monday thru Friday–which is where I got most of my education in classic Hollywood movies. But The Haunting was probably the most terrifying movie I’d ever seen; it wasn’t until a rewatch later in my life that I realized that perhaps the most terrifying and unsettling thing about the movie was you never saw whatever it was that was creating the happenings at Hill House–and they were never really explained, either. I had nightmares after watching it the first time, and those nightmares became recurring. To this day I am not comfortable climbing a metal spiral staircase…
One afternoon when we were at Zayre’s for whatever reason–we went there almost weekly, although I am not sure why–I found a copy of Hell House by Richard Matheson on the paperback racks. It sounded, from reading the back, similar to the movie that had scared me so when I was younger, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the movie was taken from the book? I bought it and read it–loved it, in fact–but while it was similar to the story of The Haunting, it was also different enough for me to be certain they weren’t the same. (Hell House was filmed actually as The Legend of Hell House, which was also a terrifying film–more on that later). It wasn’t until years later, when I was in a used bookstore in Emporia, that I stumbled across this:
It was only a quarter, and looking at the back I recognized the characters–Nell, Theo, Dr. Montague, Luke–and of course, the name of the haunted house–Hill House. I bought it and a couple of others, and I started reading at the first opportunity, and was completely mesmerized. It quickly became one of my favorite novels of all time–I already knew Jackson’s story “The Lottery”, because at some point in school I’d been shown the film (why was this appropriate school viewing? Imagine trying to show it to students today!) and in a Drama class we’d actually read the stage adaptation and even put it on for the school (I think I had one line in our production?). Reading Stephen King’s Danse Macabre also told me more about both Jackson’s writing and the Robert Wise directed film, which was my first exposure to Julie Harris; I also remembered that the opening of Jackson’s novel was used by King as an epigram in ‘salem’s Lot; he also dedicated a book to her “because she never had to raise her voice,” which is a very poetic way to describe the softly macabre writing style and voice she used in her works. I lost my original copy at some point during moves over the years, and I acquired another copy after we returned to New Orleans in 2001 from our brief, preferably forgotten interlude in Washington DC–and have made a point to reread it every year since.
And no matter how many times I reread it, I never tire of its haunting, terrifying beauty.
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 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.
Dr. John Montague was a doctor of philosophy; he had taken his degree in anthropology, feeling obscurely that in this field he might come closest to his truest vocation, the analysis of supernatural manifestations. He was scrupulous about the use of his title because, his investigations being so utterly unscientific, he hoped to borrow an air of respectability, even scholarly authority, from his education. It had cost him a good deal, in money and pride, since he was not a begging man, to rent Hill House for three months, but he expected to be compensated for his pains by the sensation following upon the publication of his definitive work on the causes and effects of psychic disturbances in a house commonly known as “haunted.” He had been looking for an honestly haunted house all his life. When he heard of Hill House he had been at first doubtful, then hopeful, then indefatigable; he was not the man to let go of Hill House once he had found it.
Dr. Montague’s intentions with regard to Hill House derived from the methods of the intrepid nineteenth-century ghost hunters; he was going to go and live in Hill House and see what happened there. It was his intention, at first, to follow the example of the anonymous Lady who went to stay at Ballechin House and ran a summer-long house party for skeptics and believers, with croquet and ghost-watching as the outstanding attractions, but skeptics, believers, and good croquet players are harder to come by today; Dr. Montague was forced to engage assistants. Perhaps the leisurely ways of Victorian life lent themselves more agreeably to the devices of psychic investigation, or perhaps the painstaking documentation of phenomena had largely gone out as a means of determining actuality; at any rate, Dr. Montague had not only to engage assistants but to search for them.
That opening paragraph alone is a masterpiece.
I parodied it for the beginning of one of my Scotty books–it gave me great pleasure to write the words New Orleans, not sane, stood by itself within its levees–and of course, this book was a pretty heavy influence on Bury Me in Shadows. The book reads almost like a fever dream, with its rhythms and poetries of language, and the story itself is as mysterious as one could possibly hope. The genius of Jackson is knowing that the biggest fear of all is the unknown; so we never know what is actually going on at Hill House–is the house actually bad, or just unlucky? The house’s history is bad and tragic from the very beginning, as we are told in Jackson’s spellbinding voice; who precisely was Hugh Crain, who built the house for his wife and family but never knew any kind of peace within its walls? What went wrong? Jackson never lets us know anything other than that the house is bad. Her primary point of view character is perhaps the must untrustworthy and unreliable of narrators, Eleanor Vance, Nell. Dr. Montague invited Nell because of a strange occurrence that happened when she was a small child; stones rained down on their house out of clear blue sky; her mother darkly blamed it on the neighbors (this also happened to Carrie White’s house when she was a little girl in Stephen King’s Carrie–in the newspaper write-up included in the book Mrs. White also blamed it on “the neighbors”), but other than that, Nell is pretty ordinary and small. She’s wasted most of her adult life taking care of her invalid mother; she’s now in her early thirties and living with her sister’s family, sleeping on the couch. She’s meek but capable of anger–she has a lot of anger and rage buried deep inside of herself–anger at the world, at the injustice of her wasted life, at the lack of a viable future; she has no prospects, no job, no friends, no nothing. The invitation to Hill House awakens a joy in her that she’s never known–she’s wanted somewhere. Her sister and brother-in-law refuse to let her take their mutual car; she gets up early and rebelliously takes the car anyway and heads to Hill House. As she drives she daydreams and observes everything along the road, making up a lovely fantasy for herself about living in a house with stone lions at the foot of the driveway; she stops for lunch and observes a little girl who refuses to drink her milk because she doesn’t have her special cup with stars on the bottom she can she as she drinks. Mentally, Nell urges the little girl not to give in, to not surrender to the injustice of not having her proper cup–as it will be the first of many surrenders of herself she’ll end up making throughout her life until she, like Nell, becomes invisible.
And then, hopeful and happy and excited, she arrives and gets her first look at Hill House:
The house was vile. She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.
Which then gives Jackson the opportunity, as the next chapter opens, to describe Hill House:
No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice. Almost any house, caught unexpectedly or at an odd angle, can turn a deeply humorous look on a watching person; even a mischievous little chimney, or a dormer like a dimple, can catch up a beholder with a sense of fellowship; but a house arrogant and hating, never off guard, can only be evil. This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity. It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until was destroyed.
Nell’s sanity, never the strongest, is affected deeply by the house–she both hates and loves it, separate parts of her nature begging her to flee while the other telling her she’s come home, to stay. The other three in the party–Dr. Montague, Theo the lesbian with some psychic ability, and Luke, due to inherit the house one day–become aware very quickly that the house is having an odd effect on her; they also hate and fear the house, but that welcoming feeling Nell experiences, that desire to never leave, is for her and her only. The rest of the book is quietly terrifying–the noises in the night, the realization that whatever is going on in the house has a sly intelligence of a sort–and the scene where Nell is terrified in the night and holds Theo’s hand…until Theo turns on the lights and Nell realizes she was across the room so whose hand was I holding? is one of the most horrifying moments in horror fiction. And then, the chilling, tragic end.
I also always see the house the way it was shown in the movie.
I also rewatched the movie while I was rereading the novel–not the execrable remake but the original–and it holds up just as terrifying and unsettling as it was the first time. Julie Harris is fantastic as Nell, fragile and frayed and slowly unraveling; in the movie isn’t not quite as left to the viewer as it is to the reader the notion that Nell herself is the one haunting Hill House; the house gains its power through her. (This was done beautifully in the Netflix adaptation, The Haunting of Hill House, which is loosely based on the book but updated and adapted and changed significantly; I thought the series was fucking fantastic and an excellent homage to both the book and the original film. You can’t improve on what came before, so why not reinterpret it? I know Jackson purists were outraged, but having seen the dreadful 1999 remake…yeah, this wasn’t that, for sure.)
Also, because of the movie, whenever I read the book I see it in my mind in black and white. The film wouldn’t work in color, either.
If you’ve not read the book, you really should. It’s a masterpiece on every level.