Monday, October 12, 2009

The Haunting of Hill House

Sunday was spent ignoring domestic matters as I couldn’t put this book down. Straight off I would have to say that I don’t think it’s as good as ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’, but given the quality of the competition that’s hardly a criticism. A few things struck me about ‘The Haunting of Hill House’; first off it has a simply stunning beginning, which is also the end:

“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 for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
Jackson uses repetition throughout the book, sometimes the effect is darkly comic, sometimes disorientating, and sometimes creepy, which pretty much sums up the whole book. I’m not yet well acquainted enough with American Gothic to get over the altogether foreign feel of it. The small town world encountered here, or even in ‘Peyton Place’ is dissimilar enough to not entirely translate into my English experience, close enough to understand, but different enough to make me wonder. One of the things I’m never really sure I can imagine properly is the sheer amount of space and isolation, the full weight of wooded hills pressing down in and around full of god knows what. The countryside I know, even at its wildest is much tamer, much more manageable, much smaller than that.

A good portion of my childhood was spent in a house which had a reputation for being haunted and I could recount plenty of ghost stories that the tellers (including me) swore where true. Looking back honestly there was only one occasion that I genuinely can’t explain, it took place in the middle of the day and it was more disconcerting than frightening, what could be frightening was that the house was on an Island, At its closest point we were only separated from the mainland by a few hundred yards, but in bad weather we were genuinely cut off and of course; nobody could hear you scream!

The last inhabitant before us had a not entirely happy life, legend does not as yet have much to say about her, but she spent the last few years of her life a recluse, bed ridden with MS. She had a lovely view and a deep Christian faith which she would have needed, without them it would be all too easy to imagine a creeping insanity and this brings me back to Hill House. The actual haunting bits swing between genuinely scary (whose hand is that you're holding in the dark?) and to my mind slightly overblown, but the really frightening element is that of what happens when an unbalanced mind meets an unbalanced house filled with generations of unspent malice.

When I first picked up this book something felt slightly off kilter about it, and know I’ve worked it out I’m particularly impressed with the cover art. A little thumbnail print on the back makes it clear that the picture on the front has been turned upside down, as it’s a reflection anyway it’s not immediately obvious, and I keep finding myself turning the book around. A clue to the nature of Hill House is that none of the angles are true, everything is a little off spatially and consequently the characters perception of space and distance is thrown right out. The cover in its small way does the same to the reader. Genius.

Until I bought this book I was going to wait until Halloween to read it, but actually a sunny October day was probably better, it’s a summer ghost story, all the more scary for the sunshine’s inability to keep the unexplainable at bay, I look forward to finding more Jackson to read.

1 comment:

  1. I agree, not as good as We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but certainly very good. And I love what you say about the cover - I hadn't thought about that. The idea of the house having all its angles slightly out was brilliant.