Reading the Weird

My Bedroom Used to Be the Embalming Room: The Haunting of Hill House (Part 3)

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Welcome back to Reading the Weird, in which we get girl cooties all over weird fiction, cosmic horror, and Lovecraftiana—from its historical roots through its most recent branches.

This week, we continue with Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, first published in 1959. Today we’re covering Chapter 2. Spoilers ahead.

“Perhaps someone had once hoped to lighten the air of the blue room in Hill House with a dainty wallpaper, not seeing how such a hope would evaporate in Hill House, leaving only the faintest hint of its existence, like an almost inaudible echo of sobbing far away.”

“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…Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed.”

She should have turned back at the gate, Eleanor thinks, and yet this is what she’s come so far to find. Besides, Dudley would laugh if she appealed for exit now. She parks her car in front of the house—just in case she wants to leave in a hurry.

Setting foot on the first step is “an act of moral strength,” but with it comes the song line that’s been eluding her: “Journeys end in lovers meeting.” Encouraged, Eleanor reaches for the door knocker with a child’s face—and comes face to face with a dour woman who can only be Mrs. Dudley. The hall of dark paneling and closed doors evokes a child’s plaintive thought, I don’t like it here, but Eleanor follows the silent housekeeper to her second-floor bedchamber, the Blue Room. It shares the “clashing disharmony” of the rest of Hill House, one wall being “a fraction longer than the eye could endure,” another “a fraction less than the barest possible tolerable length.” Mrs. Dudley informs Eleanor dinner’s at six sharp, breakfast at nine. She can’t keep the rooms up as guests might like, but no one else will come closer to Hill House than town. And the Dudleys leave every day before sundown, so there won’t be anyone around to help, nor even hear, “in the night, in the dark.”

Mrs. Dudley smiles for the first time as she intones those last portentous words.

Full of misgivings, Eleanor unpacks. She catches herself trying to move silently, as if she were a “small creature swallowed whole by a monster.” She reminds herself it was her choice to come, but remains frozen with fear until she hears someone else arriving and runs to the staircase, “Thank heaven you’re here,” is her relieved greeting.

The newcomer is “Theodora, just Theodora,” who at once joins Eleanor in facetious praise of Hill House. Eleanor’s struck by her beauty, ease and charm—surely Theodora’s not the sort of person for Hill House, though really, who is? Mrs. Dudley gives Theodora the “green room,” connected to Eleanor’s by a shared bath. As Mrs. Dudley delivers her speech on meal hours and nightly isolation, the two talk around her, Theodora trying to ease Eleanor’s anxiety. Mrs. Dudley gone, they change into “country” clothes and head outside to explore, propping the front door open with a stone vase.

Mrs. Dudley immediately removes the vase and closes the door, angering Theodora. Eleanor hopes she’ll never draw Theodora’s anger; strange how she, normally shy around strangers, already experiences Theodora as someone “close and vital.”

They circumnavigate the house-girdling veranda to the back yard, beyond which the hills pile “in great pressing masses.” Theodora quips that one of the hills might fall on them; Eleanor says “They don’t fall…They just slide down, silently and secretly, rolling over you while you try to run away.” Again Theodora senses Eleanor’s fear and confronts it directly: “Don’t be so afraid all the time. We never know where our courage is coming from.”

With “an instinct almost animal,” the two scent water and follow the path to a shallow brook. Running ahead, Theodora almost falls in. Eleanor catches her, and they recline on the bank, admiring the scene. Eleanor again waxes fanciful: the brook is where a princess meets a golden fish who’s really a prince in disguise. More prosaically, it might make a perfect picnic spot. They joke about picnic-menacing ants and bulls, comic uncles and a shared fictional aunt, Edna-or-Muriel. Theodora declares they must be cousins, laughing.

But Eleanor shushes her, for something’s moving on the opposite bank. Shoulder to shoulder, they watch the passage of an unseen creature through tall grass. Theodora grips Eleanor’s wrist and says firmly that it was just a rabbit.

Eleanor remains anxious, for the light’s fading. She leads the way back toward Hill House, but stops and confesses, “Theodora, I don’t think I can, you know. I don’t think I really will be able to do it.”

Theodora puts an arm around Eleanor’s shoulders and says, “Would you let them separate us now? Now that we’ve found out we’re cousins?”

 

Anne’s Commentary

Jackson opens Chapter Two as she did Chapter One, describing Hill House from a safe (but still wary) distance, omniscient author rather than overawed protagonist. Actually, the author isn’t omniscient, for hers too is a human eye, incapable of picking out the exact “coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house.” Wait, though. Surely the human-eyed architect of Hill House envisioned every aspect of its design; surely human-eyed carpenters and bricklayers, roofers and glaziers, controlled every aspect of its construction.

Or did they? Hill House, Jackson writes, “seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders.” It can do this because it’s a “live organism, and no “sane” live organism either.

Look at how Jackson chooses “animate” over “inanimate” words to describe Hill House. It has a “face” rather than a “façade.” Its face is awake. Its windows are watchful. The eyebrow of its cornice conveys a touch of glee. It is a house “arrogant and hating, never off guard,” a house “without kindness.” The “powerful pattern” that dictates its gestation and final form sounds as complex as genetic code, and as subject to mutation. Meant to shelter humans, like all houses, it develops its own will and “[rears] its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity.”

Hill House is the Godzilla of habitations, irradiated to monsterdom by human toxicity. Or it’s Frankenstein’s piecemeal creation, inevitably beyond the rule of its creator. Eleanor imagines that the builders “had given up on any attempt at style” on the second floor, knowing that style helpless to contain the autonomous substance of the House—what it would be “whether they chose it or not.” Having accepted defeat, they just wanted to get the hell out.

As the Dudleys get the hell out, every dusk. Mrs. Dudley, Eleanor intuits, doesn’t like her and Theodora’s criticism of the house, as if it could hear them. Mrs. Dudley must wear rubber-soled shoes, because she moves soundlessly across the polished floors, a silence Eleanor adopts via stockinged feet until Theodora’s frank footsteps inspire her to similarly bold “clattering.”

Theodora’s advent and the first development of her relationship with Eleanor comprise the second half of Chapter Two. Something had to jolt Eleanor out of her creep-mouse trepidation, or else she would have overcome it only to bolt out of Hill House before the story could get well underway. And someone had to happen, too, for it was only remembering that “journeys end in lovers meeting” that got Eleanor onto the physical first step to entry.

Once recalled, “journeys end in lovers meeting” becomes Eleanor’s mantra against fear and bolting. Who is to be the “lover” becomes the question.

It’s startling to watch socially awkward Eleanor throw herself at Theodora as she does—startling but deeply believable. Eleanor starts the “throwing” before she even knows who (or what sex) the newcomer is—given the supercharged circumstance that is Hill House, anyone will do. Luckily Theodora is too self-assured to mind.

After her first relieved outburst of “thank heaven somebody’s here,” Eleanor falls back on the formality of introducing herself. Theodora’s less formal response of giving her first name as only name and adding “This bloody house” sets an unrestrained and bantering tone that Eleanor instantly adopts.

Not that she can fool empathic (perhaps telepathic) Theodora. Probably she couldn’t long have fooled anyone of reasonable sensitivity, but Theodora can bluntly call her on her pretense: “You’re frightened,” she says, then tempers the observation by attributing Eleanor’s fear to hunger, which makes Theodora herself upset.

This pattern of interaction continues: Mutual banter, Eleanor betraying anxiety, Theodora responding directly to the anxiety and then lightening the mood again. Eleanor is glad to follow Theodora’s lead for the most part. She’s relieved to see Theodora take slacks from her suitcase, since this means Eleanor can wear the slacks she’s bought especially for Hill House and then doubted the propriety of, as her mother would have. She’s vindicated, too, in wearing a blatantly red sweater by Theodora’s wearing a vivid yellow shirt. Together they bring “color and life” to Hill House and defy Mrs. Dudley by clattering downstairs and propping open the front door.

Hill House is not so easily defied. Mrs. Dudley shuts the door. Eleanor carries Theodora’s joke about falling hills too far by imagining them doing a much more sinister slide. An unseen something slithers through the brookside grass, cutting off chatter about picnics and fairytale princesses and common experiences, “chilling the sunlight” and reawakening Eleanor’s nervousness about approaching night. They have been away too long, she says.

And have they gone too far too soon, interpersonally? Eleanor wonders at how quickly she’s come to “think of Theodora as close and vital, someone whose anger would be frightening.” Theodora may both soothe and intimidate Eleanor with her frank empathy/telepathy. Theodora’s also a “touchier” person than Eleanor’s been used to, touching her shoulder, catching her hand, touching her cheek with one finger, putting an arm across her shoulders.

Theodora probably touches no more than is her habit. Eleanor doesn’t seem to mind—or misread it. If journeys end in lovers meeting, Eleanor is still thinking in such fairytale terms as a princess and her goldfish prince, a safe situation enough, especially as the fish can’t be more than a minnow given the depth of his brook. Nor, Eleanor insists, can he be a tadpole. We all know what gamete tadpoles look like!

Enough. Jackson, through Theodora, lets us know exactly in what relation we’re to regard her heroines. They are cousins, long lost, and not to be separated now they’ve found each other, Hill House be damned!

I, for one, am all for that. Eleanor and Theo being “cousins,” not Hill House being damned. I like Hill House. So far….

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

Beside Hill House, my other major reading this week was T. Kingfisher’s The Hollow Places, a riff on “The Willows.” (It’s extremely good, and I recommend it—inside, with the lights on.) In combination, the two books spurred me to consider the boundaries between house horror and nature horror. The outside world is where you expect to find danger: it’s uncontrolled and full of predators, a place of expected uncertainty. Supernatural dangers are an extension of that original, justifiable fear. The indoor world, on the other hand, garners horror from the potential to fail at the goals of the manmade environment, which is supposed to provide shelter from predator and storm and unfriendly stranger. There are a myriad failure modes: letting the danger in, for example, or sheltering the danger along with you, or being the danger itself.

Hill House violates several requirements for well-behaved architecture, starting with having taken entirely too strong a hand in its own construction. Eleanor comments that the builders, “realizing what the house was going to be, whether they chose it or not,” gave up on trying to impose their own will on its shape. The house is its own absolute reality, more like a force of nature than something designed. Its relationship to its namesake hills is ambiguous as well—it’s more comfortable to be out by the brook, certainly, but the looming hills are part of what gives the house its power and presence, and its influence extends into (or grows from?) the countryside around. Is Hill House what happens when an unfriendly genius locus takes an interest in your construction site?

Buildings can violate human expectation by being unreasonably old or unreasonably large—or by being unreasonable in their geometry. Hill House is subtler than the Witch House, but its angles are off in a way that goes beyond your average old Victorian. (I’ve lived in many houses lacking right angles, including one where we put an Escher poster at the top of the back stairs by way of warning. It was alarming, but not terrifying unless you were carrying heavy grocery bags.) Its “clashing disharmony” suggests not so much extradimensional incursion as simple eagerness to cause distress.

Speaking of those distressed by the architecture, I’m as pleased as Eleanor to have Theodora show up. The two women, desperately in need of friendly companionship, bond instantly and eagerly. Readers, I ship it. There is so much flirting and complementing and cheek-caressing… journeys end in lovers meeting, right? They give each other a little resilience—someone to joke with about the horror in which they find themselves, someone to validate anxieties and bolster courage. That latter isn’t necessarily the wisest thing under the circumstances—Theodora urges Eleanor to stay when she might otherwise have left—but it speaks to the power of their connection.

Their swift intimacy is both a natural response to the danger and a potential exacerbation of it. It’s also a further window into vulnerabilities that the house may exploit. Eleanor, for example, is startled to find Theodora so quickly “close and vital, someone whose anger would be frightening.” Many sheltered people would be frightened of the anger of strangers, and certainly Eleanor wasn’t thrilled at encountering the wrath of a stranger last chapter. Given what we know of her family, though, it’s not surprising that her bar for really terrifying anger is higher, and associated with intimacy. Theodora, in turn, mentions the unpleasantness of her boarding school during vacations—suggesting that she didn’t go home for those vacations, and that her rejection of surname is rather more than a bohemian affectation.

Speaking of surnames, Mrs. Dudley’s remains entirely an assumption, doesn’t it? Eleanor asks without receiving an answer—she labels the woman with her presumed husband’s name, but the housekeeper herself never deviates from her automated script. It being 1959, “badly programmed AI” doesn’t seem a plausible explanation, but like Theodora I wonder precisely who—or what—she made her “agreement” with. And what, precisely, that agreement has made her. Is she Hill House’s long-toyed-with victim? Puppet? Accomplice? Avatar? For now all we know is that at night, in the dark, no one can hear you scream.

 

This week’s metrics:

What’s Cyclopean: Mrs. Dudley’s “suspicious sullenness” matches Mr. Dudley’s “malicious petulance.”

Weirdbuilding: Theodora suggests Count Dracula as a possible employer for the Dudleys, connecting with earlier stories of creepy, isolated dwellings. There’s also a lot of disturbing architectural angles.

 

Next week, if you thought fungus was scary, wait till you learn about lichen: join us for Robert Aickman’s “The Stains.” You can find it most easily in his The Unsettled Dust collection.

Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is now available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, weird and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.

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