Two Heads Full of Ghosts

A pair of columnists contemplate The Haunting of Hill House.

Two Heads Full of Ghosts

Not given to viewing ghost stories as anything other than entertainment, it must be a narrative of some repute, like “Get Out” or early Stephen King, to draw my attention, to suspend my disbelief. But I recently made an arrangement with the Independent’s own Dorothy Reno, whose opinion I respect, to read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

Now, the back end of the bargain…

It was slow going for me at first. The pacing of Hill House is headlong from the first page, so, like a piece of New Year’s mochi, the narrative lump Jackson concocts is especially viscous and hard to swallow.

A serious scientist, Dr. Montague, enlists three young people to join him in observational studies at a well-known haunted house. Theodora is Montague’s assistant. Luke stands to inherit the house and is there because the owners would not allow Montague to observe alone. Eleanor is the third, brought by the doctor because of her history of sensitivity to the paranormal.

Once the dialogue begins, especially between Eleanor and Theodora, I found it hard to read more than two or three pages at a time. But I was reminded of Don DeLillo, whose artificial and measured dialogue prepared me to think that Jackson was being artful, not formulaic.

“Journeys end in lovers meeting,” is Eleanor’s desperate plea for meaning in her life. But which lover will it be? Eleanor kicks the tires on both Luke and Theo.

It’s a gothic story, so the two young women are going to be melded into one, or somehow their identities will be obliterated. Therefore, their dialogue goes deep, fast. They’ve known each other for 10 minutes and they’re already making cracks about each other’s propensities. By the end of the first day, they are sisters whose pasts and present desires are inseparably intertwined.

Not my thing, but I recall reading Iris Murdoch’s The Time of the Angels, and there are freaky pleasures in such stories.

In the beginning, so much is about the house — dastardly, illogical, off-center, malicious, looming — but all that information is detached from actually being in the house, or the house showing any effect. This bored me, until I remembered the dreadful walks through the high school in Gus Van Sant’s movie “Elephant,” which ultimately map out in the viewer’s mind how the violent dramatic action to come will play out physically.

So, I knew it would get better. And, around chapter four, with the first undeniable supernatural occurrences, the story began to click for me. Montague is guiding them through the house, so many rooms, so many doors, and when they come to the library in the tower:

“I can’t go in there,” Eleanor said, surprising herself, but she could not. She backed away, overwhelmed with the cold air of mold and earth which rushed at her. “My mother-” she said, not knowing what she wanted to tell them, and pressed into the wall. “Indeed?” said the doctor, regarding her with interest. “Theodora?” Theodora shrugged and stepped into the library…”

Later in the chapter, Eleanor wakes up in the middle of the night, calling, “Coming, mother, coming.” As she comes to consciousness, she realizes that she is not with her deceased mother, but in Hill House.

Shortly thereafter, Eleanor runs into Theo’s room, and they experience a chaos in the hallway. Their doors are locked, but when they discover that the doctor and Luke have been drawn away by a mirage, they agree that the four of them should stay together at all times. The house is trying to trick them.

This was when I felt rewarded. Jackson hooked me (meaning I no longer fell asleep after three pages). I dispelled disbelief. I was following the story, which is Eleanor’s devolution from unhappily living to happily dying.

On the way to her chilling oblivion, she confuses interiors and exteriors, and reverts to helpless pre-adolescent Nell, while Luke and Theo become lovers. What is there for Nell to love? The house. Hill House paints her name on its walls, asking her to come home. The house speaks the word “Mother” repeatedly.

“Nell please come home. Mother.” It’s almost like the reverse of life. She is drawn back into her mother. The house is mother and death.

With such a gloomy prospect — “Lost. Lost. Lost,” — one has to wonder about Jackson’s relationship with her own mother. Biographers tell us, yes, it was contentious. But Jackson isn’t making a Freudian analysis. My Penguin Classics edition of The Haunting of Hill House has an introduction from Laura Miller, who highlights Jackson’s emulation of Henry James’ psychological ghost stories. Each analyzed “the dissolving boundary…between the mind and the exterior world.”

Now, as I go through the book a second time, the hints are there from the beginning. Jackson’s structure is nearly perfect. She even has three comic characters: Mrs. Dudley, the cook and housekeeper, who seems slightly autistic in her regimentation of time; Dr. Montague’s wife, an otherwise lovely woman whose only vice is bad, pushy spiritual/divination practices; and Mrs. Montague’s oddball assistant, Arthur.

When the doctor finally realizes that Eleanor is in grave danger, he and the others prepare to send her away. By that point, Eleanor doesn’t want to leave, and so the scene is set for her demise. She must accept that she was part of oblivion before she even knew it.

And, in this way, I was reminded of a Nicole Kidman film, “The Others,” where the main character has to come to terms with the fact that the house isn’t haunted, but that she is the ghost haunting the house.

That’s psychological! Fun, too. Thanks, Dorothy! 


Thanks for reading with me, Y.S.! I read The Haunting of Hill House for the first time last spring. I had been told that it was one of the best and most important literary ghost stories, and I wanted to find out if that were true. And, more to the point, what people meant by the term “literary ghost story.”

Before I get to that, I wanted to give you props on your analysis regarding Eleanor’s going from “unhappily living to happily dying.” This reversal of expectations is really at the heart of the story, and I think it speaks to the even more radical idea of a complete overturning of mores and values, which is the true “horror” of the novel. 

In Hill House, it’s the notion that death could be more desirable than life, and that one might even wish for it and strive for it, making death (escape or release) into a type of romance. Early on, Eleanor thinks Hill House is “as hard to get into as heaven.” This is one of the most significant lines in the book.

As you point out, the reversal or psychological trick at play in Hill House is the same device that makes movies like “The Others” and “The Sixth Sense” so intelligent and intriguing. We’re called to consider, “What if everything I take for granted is nothing more than a self-delusion?”

I suspect it’s also partly what people mean when they say, “literary horror.” I know that literary horror is character driven, and this meshes perfectly with the idea of embracing death — or not embracing it — as every individual must adopt a stance toward their mortality on starkly solitary terms, a psychological fact which doesn’t lend itself to mechanical plot structures. 

You mentioned Henry James, whose well-known novella The Turn of the Screw is an obvious influence on The Haunting of Hill House and has certainly paved the way more broadly for psychological thrillers in both literature and film.

James wasn’t the only influence I saw in Hill House, though, and it seems to me that Jackson worked hard to anchor this book in other classics: Dr. Montague shows up with a copy of Pamela, a forerunner to Great Expectations, with its themes of social mobility.

We get other hints of Great Expectations in the story of Hill House’s “companion,” the little girl who is adopted from the village by the eccentric and reclusive elder sister, a detail that puts us in mind of creepy Miss Havisham and Estella.   

The branch that taps all night at the character Arthur’s window is a blatant and affectionate call-back to Wuthering Heights, when the ghost of Catherine Linton knocks on Mr. Lockwood’s window and cries to be let in. Most viscerally, the episode where Eleanor clutches the phantom hand (which she mistakes for Theodora’s) filled me with a sensation that comes all the way up to the lone footprint on Robinson Crusoe’s beach. 

Lastly, Eleanor’s omniscience near the finale of the book mimics that of Ishmael in Moby-Dick

Back to your interpretation, Y.S. You also mentioned, “The house is mother and death.” Indeed, there seems to be a mother/lover and womb/tomb dynamic at play between Hill House and Eleanor. As “mother,” the house feeds on Eleanor’s guilt when it bangs on doors and walls, imitating how Eleanor’s invalid mother used to call for her.

As womb/tomb, the house is very seductive, singing to Eleanor, holding her hand, embracing her, and even filling her with feelings of joy and serenity. The terror here is insidious; a gentle and slow turning against life, and one that could be highly attractive for a person whose experiences have been as miserable, dull, and difficult as Eleanor’s.

But, overall, the house is at its most menacing when it plays the role of jealous lover. Do you remember the scene after Eleanor has “surrendered,” when she is “at one” with the house? She floats around listening in on the conversations that the others are having. She wants to know what they will say about her, and they say…absolutely nothing at all! Even much-hated Mrs. Dudley gets a mention, but on the topic of Eleanor, everyone remains silent, as if she were never there.

How can the reader believer this? In a house of so few people, no one brings up Eleanor’s name, either for better or worse?

I think the house does this on purpose, to show Eleanor that no one cares for her, to prove that she isn’t even a basic player for Dr. Montague, Theodora, and Luke. (Particularly Theo and Luke, who are the house’s rivals for Eleanor’s love.) As in an unhealthy relationship, the house wants to isolate Eleanor from others so it can have her all to itself.

Nevertheless, for me, the scariest parts of Hill House are the least supernatural: the memory of Eleanor’s judgmental and needy mother; the cruel sister who cares more for her car than for Eleanor’s wellbeing; the strange, foreboding, repetitive speeches from Mrs. Dudley, who will not tolerate connection of any kind.

Worst of all is Mrs. Montague, an exceptionally domineering person whose dragon bathrobe tells us all we need to know. This frightful cast of bitches makes the house’s blood splatters and demonic dogs and skeletal hands shrink in comparison. And here’s where the writing is on the wall for Eleanor once again: The specter of her life is far worse than death.

But is it?

The house is evil, as the narrator tells us up front and in categorical terms. Eleanor knows, too, deep down. She shudders when she first sees Hill House. Even during delusional moments of happiness, she shudders still.

What can the house possibly offer her? Only the relief from the dysfunctional company of others, which she can’t help attracting into her life again and again. “Whatever walked there,” Jackson writes, “walked alone.”

Y.S Fing is definitely within the dissolving boundary between the mind and the exterior world. Dorothy Reno is a senior editor and classic-books columnist for the Independent. She lives in “Sakartvelo,” the country also known as the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Her house is not haunted, but she never says anything bad about it, just in case.   

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