Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, June 23, 2014

Shirley Jackson, _The Haunting of Hill House_

AN APPROPRIATELY ODD kind of convergence led me to this.

First, my mother, who died a little over twenty years ago, really loved Shirley Jackson. I never read any, though, save that middle school standby "The Lottery"--just wasn't that curious.  Still, when we packed up the paperbacks at my parents' house a year ago, most of them to return to the Planned Parenthood booksale from whence years ago they had come, I set aside We Have Always Lived in a Castle, thinking it might be a way of keeping up ties with Mom, in a way. (I still haven't read that one, though.)

Second, this past semester I supervised an independent study on the Gothic--Walpole, Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, and so on up to Dracula--not because I know a lot about the Gothic, but just because I was willing to help the three Gothic-hungry students out. Their enthusiasm made an impression on me. I'm still not all that fond of the Gothic, but I did have a chance to see what its devotees find exciting about it.

Third: a few weeks ago we were visiting Elder Daughter in her new home in Tennessee. Wherever we go, I insist on visiting the local bookstores, which in this case took us to a large used book store called McKay's. Browsing the fiction shelves, my eye fell on this. Things seemed to click into place. Okay, I thought, this is the right time to read this.

I started that afternoon, and finished a couple of days later--obviously, it worked for me.

For one thing, Jackson's prose is really good--which cannot be said of the prose of Radcliffe, Lewis, Charles Maturin, Bram Stoker, or even Mary Shelley or Poe, if you ask me, however inventive their imaginations are. Jackson's writing is lean, undecorated, its music subtle.

For another, the book passes the Bechdel test, thanks to the relationship between Eleanor (our point-of-view character) and Theodora.  Theodora's resources and strategies for attracting and holding male attention are multiple and effective, Eleanor's few and feeble, but the rivalry one expects to develop out of this discrepancy never quite materializes as they find each other somewhat more interesting than the available male company.

Finally, like my other favorites in this vein (James's Turn of the Screw and Blake Butler's There Is No Year), The Haunting of the Hill House never does explain what the hell is going on, what the source of the various noises and disturbances and psychic disintegrations is. Explanations, I find, always disappoint. Puzzles are more interesting than solutions. We never do learn what is haunting Hill House, and that's just as it is should be.

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