Reading the Weird

Tales to Tell at a Marshmallow Roast: Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (Part 4)

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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 3. Spoilers ahead. TW for historical suicide.

“Ladies, if you are the ghostly inhabitants of Hill House, I am here forever.”

Eleanor and Theodora return from exploring to find Luke on the porch. Journeys end in lovers meeting, Eleanor thinks. Inside, Luke says, Montague’s “gloating over his haunted house.” Theodora suggests the joke isn’t so funny with darkness falling.

Montague ushers them to a “common room,” a chamber within chambers, windowless, with an unpleasantly high ceiling, uncomfortably slippery chairs, and maroon upholstery. Eleanor thinks with wonder “I am the fourth person in this room; I am one of them; I belong.”

Luke pours martinis, and bantering introductions ensue. Luke styles himself a bullfighter, Eleanor a Parisian artist’s model, Theodora a lord’s daughter in commoner’s guise, and Montague a “pilgrim, a wanderer.” Tomorrow, he says, they’ll explore the house; for now, having studied the bewildering floor plan, he’ll lead them to dinner.

With its sumptuously set table, the dining room proves uncharacteristically welcoming. Montague notes the Dudleys have long cared for Hill House, and Theodora jokes that they’re its true heirs. Eleanor breaks in with “But why are we here?” Montague puts off answering, but Theodora and Luke press for immediate explanations. Montague relents.

Back in their common room, Montague warns against letting “half-remembered spooky stories” skew their observations. Ideally they should be “ignorant and receptive,” but that’s impractical. That certain houses are inherently “unclean” is a concept old as man. Skeptics explain psychic disturbances with electric currents, hallucinations, sun spots. People are always anxious to cover mysteries with scientific jargon.

Montague heard of Hill House from a former tenant, one of many who… didn’t stay long. All gave practical excuses for decamping, yet urged him to avoid the place. Local newspapers revealed a history of “suicide and madness and lawsuits.” Luke’s aunt may have hoped he’d keep these scandals quiet.

As for the ladies, Montague hopes Theodora’s telepathy and Eleanor’s association with poltergeist phenomena will “intensify the forces at work in the house.”

Eleanor’s shaken by his reference to the falling stones of her childhood. She repeats her mother’s insistence that jealous neighbors were responsible. Theodora tries to distract Montague; Luke cuts in asking for simple facts. Montague first asks if they want to leave. Eleanor admits to being “a baby” earlier, but impulsively says she doesn’t think they could leave now, then laughs off the remark.

Montague details Hill House’s history. Hugh Crain built it 80 years ago, but ill fortune struck early: Crain’s young wife died in a carriage accident as she approached her new home. The second Mrs. Crain died in a fall, the third of consumption. Crain’s two daughters grew up in Hill House (to Eleanor and Theodora’s horror), and quarreled about their inheritance. The elder, unmarried, lived in Hill House with a Hillsdale girl as sole companion. At her death (which rumor blamed on the companion’s neglect), the companion inherited Hill House. The younger sister was enraged and litigious. Companion claimed Sister stole from the house while she slept, while Sister insisted she’d never go there at night. Finally the hounded Companion hanged herself. The house passed to Companion’s Sanderson cousins, who—like their subsequent tenants—stayed only a few days in Hill House.

Lecture over, Montague proposes bridge, but Theodora doesn’t play. Montague fetches a chess set, returning shaken. The house watches, he says. Just his imagination, of course.

While Montague and Luke play, Theodora sulks by the fire. Eleanor joins her, listens to her complaint about how dull Hill House is. At home there would be lights, excitement. Eleanor doesn’t need such things, after nursing her mother eleven years. Theodora revives, sympathizes, touching Eleanor’s hand. Eleanor dislikes being touched and is self-conscious about her nails—are they clean? She slides her hand away.

After claiming Luke’s madly in love with Eleanor, Theodora describes the apartment she shares with her partner; Eleanor asks if she’s married and is embarrassed when Theodora says no. She describes her own apartment, a fictional composite of her drive observations: white curtains, stone lions, a cup-of-stars.

The four retire. Theodora tells Eleanor to run into her room if she gets nervous. Eleanor fusses with her door lock, imagines she sees things move. Then weariness and the soft comfort of her bed overcome apprehension and she sleeps. So do the other three, while around them “the house brooded, settling and stirring with a movement that was almost like a shudder.”

 

Anne’s Commentary

Our intrepid ghost hunters gather at last in the entrance hall of Hill House, “four separated people, and [look] trustingly at each other.” Eleanor and Theodora have bonded over mutual dislike of the Dudleys and Hill House; they’ve shared a “rabbit” scare and established themselves as long-lost “cousins.” Luke, an expert ingratiator, goes to work on Theodora and Eleanor. He first strikes Eleanor as an eligible lover to meet at journeys end but loses points through too-facile compliments. Though Theodora falls in with Luke’s “silliness,” impending nightfall dampens her appreciation. On that down note, avuncular host Dr. Montague appears to bolster the party’s spirits.

Each time I read Hill House, I’m more impressed by Jackson’s skill in handling the dynamics among her four principal characters. Add in the fifth principal, the House itself, and I’m floored. In Chapter Three, however, Hill House graciously recedes into the background, content to send forth only “small eddies of air and sound and movement” while it evaluates its new tenants. Montague has anticipated a quiet night: “There is a pattern to these things, as though psychic phenomena were subject to laws of a very particular sort.”

Particular, too, are the patterns of human interaction Jackson lays down during her foursome’s first evening together. It’s a complex dance, varying in mood from frivolous to serious, from companionable ease to anxiety and doubt. The unlikely (or inevitable) prima is Eleanor. She can do a frivolous duet or trio, but Theodora and Luke are masters of this mode, with none of Eleanor’s self-consciousness. Montague doesn’t do frivolity, unless you count his lengthy riffs on still lengthier 18th-century novelists. However, he’s often amused by and tolerant of the others’ antics. Just don’t joke about spirits or disembodied hands. Montague’s touchy about people ridiculing the paranormal.

He’ll lead serious discussion of psychic phenomena, but it’s Eleanor who interrupts banter with the sobering question, why are we here? Probably relieved to have that ice broken, Theodora and Luke convince Montague to give his opening Hill House lecture that night rather than by the fear-chasing light of morning.

I bet he was itching to lecture, anyway.

With a good dinner in their bellies and brandies in hand, the four grow comfortable. They begin to know each other, and Eleanor basks in the unfamiliar sense of being one of a party, really there, her own self. She’s undisturbed by Montague’s theories about how houses become deranged—is it nature (some houses are born bad) or is it nurture (they’re made bad by their inhabitants)? Hill House’s history of misfortune, suicide, madness and lawsuits would make prime ingredients for a spooky story (Montague’s bane). Too bad Montague harshes the mood by answering Eleanor’s question: Why are they there? In Theodora and Eleanor’s cases, it’s because he hopes they’ll “intensify the forces at work in the house.” What, act as psychical foci or batteries? Theo because she’s telepathic, Eleanor because—

Because of her association with poltergeist phenomena, the falling stones of her childhood! Eleanor’s shocked into parroting the neighbors’ culpability—does she believe her mother’s assertions, or just desperately want to believe them? Either way, her discomfort’s so great Theodora intervenes, first with a semi-pertinent tale of her own childhood depredations, then with fresh questions. Luke firmly redirects the conversation to “the facts.”

Montague’s concerned enough by Eleanor’s agitation to ask if they all want to leave—question focused on Eleanor. She claims she’s recovered from her earlier fears, but then worryingly suggests leaving impossible.

Poor Eleanor. Dear Shirley. How deliciously you ramp up tension via Eleanor’s lapses from steadiness. I’m always worrying she’ll be sent home, when she has no home to go to.

After his lecture, Montague gets a solo scare. Luke takes a break from flirting to play chess with the doctor. Theodora’s deeply offended by the implication she couldn’t learn to play bridge well enough to suit the others. I don’t blame her. I bet with her psychic insight into the other players’ hands, she’d be a whiz. The real problem is she’s no longer in the spotlight. Problem solved when Eleanor provides the necessary attention—Theodora revives at once, so that “in the firelight her eyes shone with delight.”

The interaction between the women is fascinating. Both hunger for attention. The difference is Theodora is open and unapologetic, while Eleanor (hungrier still due to long-term deprivation) is shy, even sneaky, about her needs. Wanting sympathy without appearing pathetic, she downplays the dragging horror of nursing a difficult mother and makes up an apartment of her own out of desirable objects from her journey.

Whatever Jackson’s ambivalence, there’s sexual tension between these two. Eleanor tells herself Theodora’s touches are her way of expressing sympathy and contrition, yet she shrinks from them. She worries her nails and hands are dirty and coarse, read undesirable. She asks Theodora the most time-worn barside question: Are you married? Theo’s pause before answering seems less a matter of embarrassment than of sensing Eleanor’s query isn’t casual. It’s Eleanor who’s flustered by the “no”—because she’s afraid she’s embarrassed Theo, or because of the possibilities “No” opens up?

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

What makes a house haunted? Or, Homerically, what make a place forbidden or unclean? Previous answers have included fungus, ghosts who were unpleasant even when alive, sorcerous machines, ghosts who were probably perfectly nice when alive, and math. Dr. Montague gets serious science points for acknowledging that “rational” explanations do not rationality make, and that namelessness is not an inherent horror—nor necessarily final. “I will not put a name to what has no name” is not only an excellent line, but a genuine commitment to not insisting on explanations before the truth is discovered.

Here, however, our scientific philosophies part ways. Montague, while the sort of comforting academic type who probably has patches on all his jacket elbows, is clearly discomfited by the need to compromise research design to make space for human foibles such as wanting to know about a haunted house before you sleep in it. “Mutinous” indeed. While I sympathize with wanting unbiased assistants/subjects, this set-up would never fly with an IRB. Yes, it’s riskier to tell them the scary things at night when it’s dangerous to leave—that’s why the time for informed consent was in the original letter. (Good human subjects protection practices, alas, are often incompatible with good literature.)

Montague does eventually surrender to a reasonable briefing, telling the sordid story of the house’s original familial drama, and subsequent tendency to either drive people away or add them to its body count.* Here I encounter more discomfort: the opening description of the house as “not sane” seemed poetic and intriguing, but Montague’s focus on “insanity” and “derangement” treads against more human stereotypes. Being familiar with both modern clinical psychology and modern work on stigma and ableism, I find myself wondering if most haunted houses are actually more dangerous to themselves than others, and whether there’s such a thing as a real estate therapist, and whether anyone has written that book yet.

If we were to take Hill House’s psychology seriously, what would it look like? It’s been a locus for grief with the death of Crain’s three wives, then a source of contention for the two sisters plus the elder’s companion (somewhat like Theodora’s “friend”?). Now it pushes people away, or holds them too close, or brings them to swift ends rather than drawn-out ones. And now it has inhabitants who share its desire to escape an unpleasant past and avoid the risks of being known. Somehow, though, I suspect sympathetic swapping of familial horror stories between human and house is not in the cards, unless Madge Dalrymple unexpectedly shows up for tea.

Moving from house psychology to human psychology, the swiftly-developing dynamic among the characters is fascinating—as are the games of identity they play as they kinda sorta get to know each other. They’re imaginative (which puts paid to my original hypothesis that the House doesn’t permit that sort of thing) and skirt the bounds of absolute reality (whatever that is). Eleanor repeats to herself that she’s real, takes pleasure in the situation’s reality, but also reinvents her previous life based on her journey to the house, as if nothing matters from before she saw the lion statues. She may come to regret that.

I’m also intrigued by Theodora, whose irritation seems to start with the story of the two sisters. Her immediate assumption is that they grew up “like mushrooms, in the dark,” and her urgent need for attention seems like that of someone raised without it. I also suspect that the greenhouse incident isn’t the only time she’s carefully considered the balance of punishment and pleasure, and chosen with full awareness to do the pleasurable thing again.

We get the fewest clues about Luke. He’s charming, but also accedes easily to Dr. Montague’s ownership of the whole situation—even accepting orders make drinks followed by patronizing critiques of same. He’s restless, preferring business over dignity—but he also implies that his aunt once put him on arson duty! Can’t blame her for not wanting to keep Hill House on her ledgers, but it does add another layer to the statement that he never expected to live there. I hope Hill House doesn’t hold grudges, but it probably does.

 

This week’s metrics

Weirdbuilding: Absolute reality is geographically incomprehensible, but we knew that. Jackson also gives a shoutout to the long tradition of gothic heroines running from houses, as well as the sort of “spooky stories” appropriate to a “marshmallow roast”—and then ties them all back to biblical/Homeric ideas about unclean and forbidden places.

Madness Takes Its Toll: The chapter opens reminding us again of Hill House’s “mad face,” and Dr. Montague waxes extensively on its “insanity,” to the point where if he’s that convinced, he should perhaps have brought along a trained therapist.

And a special new metric just for Hill House, lest the topic take over my commentaries entirely—

Going Down With My Ship: Eleanor regrets not sitting on the hearthrug with Theodora, and eventually does join her when she seems unhappy. Theodora takes her hand, and Eleanor gets self-conscious and pulls away. Also, it’s extremely ambiguous whether Theodora is more jealous of Luke’s attention to Eleanor, or Eleanor’s attention to Luke. Then there’s that invitation to hide out in bed together, should any terrors befall…

*Side note: Is Mrs. Dudley descended from (or possessed by) the vicious younger sister? She shares the original’s bitterness, sense of ownership of Hill House, and refusal to be there at night. Psychic Theodora may be onto something with that “true heir” business.

 

Next week: we just discovered that there’s a new horror story out from RTW favorite Sonya Taaffe! Join us for “Tea With the Earl of Twilight.”

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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