Welcome home Nell
In an earlier letter, we talked about the different versions of Haunting of Hill House. This is one of my favourite classic horror stories, I love the characters, the setting, the story (obviously).
But most of all I love all the different interpretations that are out there. How we’ve taken this one story and put so many different spins on it, is fantastic in my opinion. However, my admiration for the different incarnations of this story aside, I thought it would be fun for us to have a look at the one that started them all.
Hill House, built by the long dead, Hugh Crain stands …somewhere, the book doesn’t really specify. But what is specified is that this is a big, old, creepy house, you know, the important stuff. This makes it the perfect location for Dr John Montague to host his investigation into the supernatural.
Dr Montague arrives at the house with Eleanor, Theodora and Luke (Luke being the heir to Hill House and host). Dr Montague has brought Eleanor and Theo as they have a history of past events involving the supernatural, this makes them perfect for his investigation. Lastly, rounding out the cast of characters are Mr & Mrs Dudley, who live as caretakers to the house, but who famously won’t stay in the house after it gets dark.
Dr Montague tells his avid group the history of the house, which is pretty grim, to be honest. Lots of deaths (violent ones) and suicide. This clearly establishes that this house is not the little house on the prairie, but reinforces the fact that it is a big, old, evil place. Building both tensions for the reader and atmosphere, this is not a safe place to be and it almost immediately gets under your skin, through the use of language and the exposition of the houses brutal history. Perhaps most importantly this little history lesson raises the reader’s curiosity, why is this place such a nightmare? What caused it? While we look down on exposition in modern storytelling (all writers have heard the saying “Show don’t Tell”) the use of it here is expertly crafted and works well as it is organic to the situation. Dr Montague is trying to research the supernatural, it’s only natural he would pick a place like this and its only natural that he shares that information with his companions.
As expected, shortly after our history lesson, supernatural events start to happen. These mainly consist of unseen noises (this was really well done in one of the more recent films and the Netflix series), ghosts wandering about, and writing appearing on the walls (I wonder if the ghosties would text these days, graffiti and pens are so dated).
As is usually the way in these type of stories, the majority of these events happen to one person while they are alone, in this case, Eleanor. The fact that the events mostly happen while Eleanor is away from her companions causes them to doubt her sanity. You would expect this I think, imagine if someone you were with started ranting about impossible unseen events, you’d likely doubt as well. But where this book differs from so many is in the way it also causes the reader to doubt Elanor as well.
The narrative encourages the reader to question, Eleanor, strongly suggesting that at least part of what is happening is all in her mind. This is perhaps my favourite part of the book, the unreliability of Eleanors perspective, we as readers don’t know if we can trust her, is she truly seeing these events, is she losing her grip on reality, or is she telekinetic and subconsciously causing the events to happen. As the narrative also implies that Eleanor might be the one causing the events with latent telekinetic abilities.
So you’re never quite sure, even up to the climax of the book, your never 100% certain of what’s going on and I love that.
As the story continues Dr Montague’s wife turns up at the house, she brings a chap (Arthur) with her and they try to help the group with the research. However, they don’t experience anything. Rather than this being boring, or pointless, taking the reader away from where the story is happening, it instead strengthens the view that nothing is happening and Eleanor is losing her mind.
But just as we’re starting to think Eleanor is not truly experiencing anything that isn’t a product of her own mind Theo starts to become more involved with the supernatural happenings. Theo being in the room when something tries to get in, something decidedly not a living person. This is one of the most well-known scenes in the book and has been wonderfully transferred to various films. The tension is high and utterly terrifying as something too huge, loud and utterly non-human tries to enter the room. But perhaps one of the most effective moments is shortly after, as during Eleanor is holding on to Theo, but once things calm down a moment, it becomes clear that whatever Eleanor was holding onto was not Theo. This is an excellent use of high tension dropping off only to spike a little afterwards, almost like an aftershock scare, a much more insidious scare.
In a later chapter the two witnesses a ghostly picnic, this doesn’t sound too terrifying right? However, while Eleanor only sees the picnic Theo sees something else entirely, something beyond the picnic. We never find out what it was that Theo saw but it causes her a great deal of distress. This is a perfect example of “less is more”, by not explicitly telling us what Theo sees our imagination runs wild, fed by the fire that is Theo’s utterly terrified reaction.
By this point in the story, aka the end, it is becoming abundantly clear that Eleanor is really not coping well. Even if we consider that she’s not losing her mind she’s still under an enormous amount of pressure and is breaking under it all. We’ve watched as she slowly crumbled under the events of the story, real or imagined. It’s only at the end of the story that we truly understand the extent of the damage done to Eleanor by her stay at Hill House. When Dr Montague decides Eleanor needs to go, he and Luke try to force the issue. Eleanor initially resists but does get into a car to leave. She says goodbye and then rams her car into a tree, killing herself.
A very sad and unsettling way to end the story, but also a perfect way to do so. We as the reader never really knows for sure what was going on. WasEleanor losing her mind naturally, was her breakdown caused by the supernatural? There are arguments laid in the book for both answers, the house’s history aka death and suicide galore is a strong indicator that Eleanore was a victim of the house, coupled with Theo starting to experience events also. But the narrative implication the Eleanor doesn’t have a strong grip on reality coupled with the fact that she seems to be the only person seeing these events for a long time.
You could argue that the house was truly haunted and Eleanors already fragile mental state made her more vulnerable. Just as you could argue that Theo didn’t see anything and was simply getting pulled into Eleanor’s delusion. This has been debated over and over and over again and ultimately it’s up to you which ‘truth’ you want to accept.
I think I’ve covered a lot about what I liked about this story already, and I’d rather not be too repetitive, so I’ll stick to other things I liked.
Firstly, I love the tone of this story, the fact that you are not entirely sure if what’s happening is ‘real’ or not. The way the story is presented is expertly done, your lack of faith in Eleanor is completely justified and even encouraged. But just as you’re about to write her off as unreliable something else will happen that will have you questioning if perhaps she’s truly experiencing these events.
But regardless of whether the events are ‘real’ or not, they are real to Eleanor and they have a very real effect on her. Which raises the question of what reality is? Is it real if it has an effect? I’ve noticed this idea being used more and more in some modern horror films and a great deal in psychological horror especially.
Then we have the third option, the events are real but caused by Eleanore herself, through unrecognised telekinetic power. This is another concept that I noticed a resurgence in a while ago, where the supernatural events, turns out to be caused by, or a power expressed by, the person being haunted. The idea of a poltergeist that’s a manifestation of the emotional trauma of a living person. It’s certainly an interesting idea, that these events could be subconsciously caused by the victim of the events.
Secondly, I love the portrayal of the supernatural. Any supernatural event, sighting or creature/ghost is usually visually hidden, partly seen or not seen at all, such as what Theo sees beyond the picnic. This is perhaps my favourite way to write supernatural horror, the unknown is always the scariest thing (can I get a whoop whoop from fellow Lovecraft fans?). For me, a lot of good horror books and films lose their edge when you see the scary ‘creature’ and the truly great horror stories (especially films) work best when you never see it at all. This is why I really enjoyed the first Paranormal Activity film, you never see the demon, and nothing is scarier than something you cannot see, touch or perceive in any way but you know it has the power to see and touch you (then they ruined it by calling the damn thing, Toby).
Thirdly, I love the ending to this book, it might be cruel to say that the suicide of the main character was one of my favourite parts but I mean it in the best possible way. Eleanor suffered a complete mental breakdown and the people she was with had no idea how to deal with this. It’s natural that she would spiral and lose all sight of a way out. There was no redemption, there was no rescue, this house chewed this poor woman up and spat her out like it did to many others before her (depending on which interpretation you prefer) her taking the only way out that she could, while heartbreaking is understandable and fits with the tone of the story. It also adds to the horror part of this story. The evil is still there, it was not stopped.
Lastly, I loved the house. This is a house that kills people or drives them insane, why? don’t know, it’s a bloody house does it have a purpose? Can it reason? Is it possessed? We don’t know. This reminds me of a Stephen King story Room 1408, its a hotel room that causes people to commit suicide by trapping them in their own personal hell until suicide is the only way out for them. Why? don’t know, as Samuel L Jackson says in the film version “It’s just an evil fucking room.”
I understand that there will be some people who dislike not knowing everything and not having the story explained, at times I find myself to be one of them. But in this instance, the ‘not knowing’ is part of what makes this book so damned good.
Overall a fantastic classic, I strongly recommend, in all it’s forms.