Reading the Weird

The Center of Attention: Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (Part 6)

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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 Chapter 5 of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, first published in 1959. Spoilers ahead.

“It is still perfectly possible that it is all caused by subterranean waters.”

On her second morning in Hill House, despite a night of door-pounding terrors, Eleanor wakes unbelievably happy. Finally she has been given part of her fair measure of joy, and she has earned it. At breakfast, Theodora, Luke and Montague are equally ebullient, although the doctor sobers quickly: their excitement may indicate they’re falling under the House’s spell. Eleanor recalls her sense that the House wanted to make them a part of itself. Montague believes ghosts pose no physical or even mental danger; their victims harm themselves, for when modern minds abandon the protective armor of superstition, they have no substitute defense. For example, they can’t reason away what happened the night before as imagination, since all four experienced the disturbances.

Eleanor smilingly suggests that she could just be imagining the whole group. Montague warns that if she really believed that, he’d send her away—she’d be too close to embracing the perils of Hill House. As ever, Eleanor resents being thought the weak link. Tension dissipates as Montague describes poltergeists as “rock-bottom on the supernatural social scale”; when Mrs. Dudley evicts them from the dining room, they retire to their den in hilarity.

Montague sends Luke to wheedle coffee from the housekeeper. He returns empty-handed—and shaken. Out in the long hallway, as Montague’s flashlight reveals, something has chalked enormous letters down the paneling. Montague reads them aloud: HELP ELEANOR COME HOME.

Eleanor slides towards panic. Did Theo or Luke do it, as a joke? If not, then why does the House single her out? Did she do something to attract attention?

No more than usual, Theodora suggests. Maybe Eleanor wrote the words herself. Or maybe the little companion has only been waiting for “some drab, timid” person from whom it can beg help.

Eleanor’s enraged to foot-stamping. Montague and Luke smile, clearly convinced that Theodora has deliberately goaded her to forestall impending hysterics. Playing the good sport, Eleanor apologizes for her reaction to the chalked words, and thanks Theodora. What she thinks, however, is that Theodora can’t stand anyone else being the center of attention.

The rest of that day passes quietly. At lunch the following day, Montague informs them his wife will visit on Saturday, proof there’s a world outside Hill House (“unfortunately,” he lets slip). Theodora and Eleanor wonder how long the peace will last. Not long, it turns out. Theodora enters her bedroom to find the rug drenched in something red. It smells like blood, but it must be paint, right? Written in red over the bed is HELP ELEANOR COME HOME ELEANOR.

It’s Theodora’s turn for hysterics as she discovers her clothes are also blood-drenched. She accuses Eleanor of making the mess. Eleanor summons Montague and Luke, impressed by her own calmness. The mess disgusts her, she tells Montague, but she’s not frightened. Montague says he’ll have another bed moved into Eleanor’s room for Theodora. He’s afraid, too, she’ll need to share Eleanor’s clothes. In the blue room, Eleanor roughly scrubs Theodora’s hands and face, hating to touch her, unappeased even when Theodora says she really didn’t think Eleanor trashed her things.

Eleanor’s resentment lingers through the evening, sharpened by the sight of Theodora wearing her red sweater. The four discuss the nature of fear. Montague calls it the relinquishment of logic. Luke thinks it’s seeing oneself without disguise. Theodora says it’s knowing what we really want. Eleanor says she’s always afraid of being alone. She’s afraid of losing herself, of one half of her mind watching the other go helpless and frantic. Still, she could stand any of it if she could only surrender—

Surrender? Montague says sharply, startling Eleanor from her meandering speech. Has she said something foolish? No, says Montague, though he still sounds grave. Eleanor’s sure she said something silly, from the way they all look at her, but the three fondly joke her out of her concern—stop trying to be the center of attention, Eleanor.

She awakens later that night in brutal cold and dark, clutching Theodora’s hand. Wait, haven’t they left the lights on? In Theo’s former bedroom a low voice mumbles, babbles, gurgles, laughs, gives a painful gasp, babbles again.

After momentary silence, an infinitely sad little cry wrings Eleanor’s heart. It’s a child’s voice, she realizes, and now the voice shrieks like the one Eleanor’s always heard in nightmare: “Go away, go away, don’t hurt me.” Sobbing again: “Please don’t hurt me. Please let me go home.” It’s monstrous, cruel, they’ve been hurting a child, and that’s one thing Eleanor can’t stand and won’t allow.

She realizes she’s lying sideways, gripping Theodora’s hand in both of hers, tight enough to feel Theodora’s bones. They think to scare Eleanor, but she’s more than her fear. She’s human—walking, reasoning, humorous—and she will yell STOP IT right now.

At Eleanor’s shout, instantly the lights are on as they left them when retiring, and Theodora sits up in her bed, just awakened, asking, “What, Nell? What?”

Eleanor flings herself from her own bed into a corner, shuddering. “God God,” she says. “Good God—whose hand was I holding?”

 

Anne’s Commentary

Forget beauty sleep—there’s nothing like a night of raw terror and flooding adrenaline to freshen the complexion and induce hilarity before, during and after breakfast. As Jackson’s ghost-hunters find relief, so does her reader, but briefly, so brilliantly briefly. Eleanor wakes unbelievably happy, mentally humming her refrain of journeys ending in lovers meeting. Then comes the buzz-kill: Theodora and Luke jokingly imply they’ve spent the night together, as if they are the lovers who’ve met. Eleanor reacts by telling her reflection that she’s the one who deserves happiness, she’s the one who’s earned it (not, by implication, Theodora.) When Theodora compliments Eleanor on her youthful good looks, Eleanor resorts to the passive-aggressive defiance of adding two years to her age. Theodora doesn’t let her get away with the little sulk; she subtracts twenty years from Eleanor’s claimed age, restoring good humor.

It lasts until Eleanor quips that maybe their Hill House party exists only in her imagination. Again Montague warns he’ll send her away at need. I can’t blame Eleanor for wondering why she’s always made out to be the “public conscience,” the weak one, weaker even than Theodora. Montague obliquely slights Eleanor further when he describes poltergeists (her associated phenomenon) as “rock-bottom on the supernatural social scale,” “mindless and will-less.” Perhaps he attributes the door-pounding of the previous night to Eleanor’s unconscious alliance with Hill House—to Hill House borrowing her psychic talents and emotional baggage to power and shape its manifestations.

Theodora may have the same suspicion when she accuses Eleanor of writing her own name on the hall paneling (and later above Theodora’s bed.) No one notices the writing on their way from breakfast to the den. Luke doesn’t notice it on his way to cajole coffee from Mrs. Dudley. No one, then, could have physically written the words, but Eleanor (or Hill House via Eleanor) might have psychically scrawled them between Luke’s going and returning.

Theodora, telepathic, could know that Eleanor was in some manner responsible for the writing, and Eleanor (aware of Theodora’s sensitivity) could know that Theodora knew, hence her conviction at the end of the chapter section that shocking Eleanor out of hysterics wasn’t all Theodora was doing with her accusation—Theodora actually meant it.

Hill House takes breaks between its more spectacular manifestations. Assuming it needs to recharge its batteries with the psychic energy of inhabitants, Eleanor may also need a break. That would account for the day and night of peace that follows the writing in the hall. After lunch the third day, enough juice has reaccumulated for whatever forces are at work in the House to hit Theodora where she lives, in her carefully curated wardrobe. Theodora immediately assumes the carnage is Eleanor’s revenge for the day before, and she may well assume it, since Eleanor’s silent response to her first outburst of “you fool” is “And I won’t forgive her for that, either.”

Once she calms down, Theodora claims she didn’t really believe Eleanor caused the mess. Does she mean that, or has she taken warning that it’s not wise to offend her Nell? The rest of the day, Eleanor indulges in an incessant internal monologue on how wicked and beastly Theodora is, how she hates her, how she’d like to batter her with rocks, watch her die. This is passive aggression of the sharpest kind, since Theodora must sense the enmity but likely won’t risk confronting it; instead she issues a blanket (seemingly sincere) apology.

The final manifestations in this chapter, the voices in Theodora’s locked room, the hand in the freezing dark that is not Theodora’s, are horrors reserved for Eleanor alone, a drama derived perhaps as much from her history as the House’s. The wild shrieking of the child is something she’s always heard in her nightmares. The child begs to go back home.

There again is the crucial word home, and the crucial desire, to go or be home. HOME is literally writ large on the walls of Hill House, as the yearning for a home, for belonging, is writ large in Eleanor’s psyche. What do the messages in chalk and blood mean? Significantly, brilliantly again, whatever walks in Hill House eschews punctuation, thus creating potentially deadly ambiguity. The first message reads HELP ELEANOR COME HOME. Supplying punctuation, we could read this as “Help, Eleanor, come home,” which suggests something’s imploring Eleanor to help it by coming home. Reading it without internal punctuation, as written, we have “Help Eleanor come home,” which suggests something’s asking for help to bring Eleanor home.

The second message, HELP ELEANOR COME HOME ELEANOR, could be punctuated “Help, Eleanor! Come home, Eleanor!” This is a more emphatic version of “Help, Eleanor, come home.” Or try “Help Eleanor come home, Eleanor!” This one’s interesting—someone must help Eleanor come home, and that someone is—Eleanor herself.

In the first pair of punctuated versions, it’s a chilling temptation to hear the voice of Eleanor’s dead mother, who so long (however necessarily) plagued her daughter with demands for assistance. In the unpunctuated “Help Eleanor come home,” we could hear the wheedling voice of Hill House, offering what Eleanor wants most but which it ultimately cannot give.

With “Help Eleanor come home, Eleanor,” the chill factor skyrockets; the onus of bringing Eleanor home—and its consequences—now falls on Eleanor herself.

How tiny commas are, little squiggly maggots of the typographic ecosystem, and what a difference they can make!

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

Clearly it was a mistake to track my excitement over Theo and Eleanor’s budding relationship—because it turns out that Hill House also finds that relationship intriguing. The hazards of psychologically-minded haunts, I suppose; passion exists to be turned sour. And boy does it, this week. A few days ago, Eleanor reacted to Theo’s desire for attention with sympathetic accommodation. Now, it’s unforgivable. A few days ago, she withdrew because she felt herself dirty and unworthy. Now, it’s Theo she finds to revolting to touch.

And of course, now, there’s Only One Bedroom.

It’s not only the relationship that’s gone off, but Eleanor herself seems nastier than she was. I think? Jackson’s doing something clever, because every bit of meanness that our protagonist shows here grows from seeds already visible, in such a way as to make me question whether I wasn’t just being forgiving earlier. The lies have gotten less whimsical and more manipulative, the internal judgment of others nastier—but there were lies before. She was desperate to fit in, before. She does carry around a deep anger, the sort that can draw rains of rocks from the sky. And all the harmless little stories about stone lions suddenly feel much more sinister. The House has a role for her to play, but it’s a role that twists the original material subtly, delicately… to make what? Is it just going for maximum drama, or is it trying to recreate something? And if so, what is it doing with the others?

There are four original players: the two sisters, the companion, and Crain. Crain certainly maps to Montague. Eleanor identifies with the companion, forced to put another first for long years, then earning a house of her own as a reward. Theo, I’m pretty sure, is one of the sisters, probably the one who lives in the house (suggesting a deeply fraught partnership with Companion). Luke would then take the remaining slot: rightful heir by blood, kept from his sisterly inheritance. (Though I could also see Eleanor as the jilted sister, Luke as the loyal companion.)

Maybe those echoes are why it’s hard, in the midst of absolute reality, time becomes vague. Identity becomes malleable. And Eleanor refuses, for now, to surrender… to what?

And, say the boys, “she has done this before.” She’s channeling something, or speaking for something, and all the while her poltergeist is becoming more dexterous.

The last section of the chapter gets philosophical: what is fear, anyway? And what’s the worst thing to be afraid of? Luke waxes strange on execution methods, and on the horror of being tickled before execution. Little things, attached to big things, may be the worst, because they make the big things that much more impossible to handle. Then Montague suggests that fear is the “relinquishment of logic,” always the opposite of “reasonable patterns.” Eleanor puts it slightly differently: when she’s afraid, she no longer has any relationship to sensible and beautiful things, things that cannot share her fear. The others follow on this: we are afraid of ourselves, we are afraid of seeing ourselves clearly, we are afraid of our real desires. And Eleanor admits to fear of losing her singular self.

All of which seem pretty reasonable concerns, in a house that will take your selfhood and use it for its own ends. And then… make you hold its hand? Speaking—perhaps honestly, for the first time—of touching something that really does justify recoiling from the contact.

 

This Week’s Metrics

Going Down With My Ship: I named this metric a little too well, didn’t I? Apparently to name happiness is to dissipate it, at least under the power of a haunt that’s paying attention. We do get a few choruses of “Journeys end in lovers meeting,” plus Theo announcing that we’re all afraid of knowing what we really want while pressing her cheek against Eleanor’s hand. (We also get that flirty morning implication that Theo’s been “bestowing favors” on Luke. But they’re not the ones the House is eager to turn against each other.)

Weirdbuilding: Montague cites other haunted houses—Borley Rectory (“the most haunted house in England”), Ballechin House* (“the most haunted house in Scotland” [Warning: This one involves sad things happening to dogs.]), Glamis Castle** (no catchy tagline [Warning: This one involves ableism and sad things happening to kids.])—and Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost.”

Libronomicon: Montague begins reading Sir Charles Grandison.

Who are we to argue with Dr. Montague? Next week, Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost.”

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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