Reading the Weird

Never a Mother: Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (Part 7)


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

“Her eyes hurt with tears against the screaming blackness of the path and the shuddering whiteness of the trees, and she thought, with a clear intelligent picture of the words in her mind, burning, Now I am really afraid.”

On the morning after she holds a spectral hand in the dark, Eleanor sits on the steps of the summerhouse, Luke sprawled lazily beside her. I am learning the pathways of the heart, she thinks. “Why do people want to talk to each other?” she asks. That is, what do they want to find out about other people?

Laughing, Luke replies, “What do you want to know about me, for instance?” Eleanor also laughs, but his vanity irks her. “What can I ever know about you, beyond what I see?” is her rejoinder, but what she really wants is for him to tell her something only she will ever know. Nothing of the least importance has ever belonged to her—can he help?

Luke seems to consider her question seriously; Eleanor waits breathless for the answer that will define how he values her. Finally he says, “I never had a mother,” and Eleanor’s shock is enormous. “No one ever loved me because I belonged,” he adds. He suspects she understands.

Eleanor agrees aloud, hiding her confusion of offense, hope, embarrassment, self-doubt. Will Luke genuinely confide in her, or can he offer only the maudlin self-pity and self-serving flirtation he’s doubtless practiced on many other women? Ultimately Luke say he wishes someone would make herself responsible for him, make him grow up. “Why don’t you grow up by yourself?” Eleanor asks. All she wants is to be cherished, and here she is, “talking gibberish with a selfish man.”

Luke touches her hand, smiles, says, “You were so lucky. You had a mother.”

Later that day: Luke shows what he found in the library. It’s a scrapbook Hugh Crain made for his daughter Sophia as “A Legacy for Her Education and Enlightenment.” It contains both classic if unnerving art clipped from other books (Goya, Blake), and still-more-unnerving illustrations Crain must have drawn himself, depicting the Seven Deadly Sins. Luke urges the others with schoolboy prurience to examine its horrors. Dr. Montague shakes his head with growing repugnance while Eleanor and Theodora soon draw aside. Since Sophia must have been very young when Hugh made the book, Eleanor hopes he didn’t show it to her before leaving Hill House. Theodora’s sure he did. She berates Crain as a “dirty old man” who built a “dirty old house” and wishes him the hell of his own depiction. Her curse strikes all silent, as if waiting for an answer from Crain. Coals fall with a little crash in the fireplace, and Montague suggests a well-earned pre-dinner cocktail.

After dinner: While Montague and Luke play chess, Theodora “gently” but with piercing insight torments Eleanor about Luke. Will she invite him to her little apartment? Would he accept out of longing for something smaller than Hill House? Eleanor responds: “But I had to come.” She leaves the parlor, heedless of the others’ startled voices, and blunders out into the “soft, warm night,” repeating that she had to come.

Because “fear and guilt are sisters,” Theodora goes after Eleanor. Each is sorry for the other, but angry or terrified enough to push—Eleanor doesn’t think Theodora has any right to interfere with her business; Theodora says nothing Eleanor does is of interest to her. They stamp through the darkness. Eleanor hurts her foot on a rock. Theodora sounds genuinely sympathetic, then apropos of everything berates Luke as a “beast” who shouldn’t be allowed to lead Eleanor on. Eleanor implies Theodora is jealous; Theodora replies that if she’s wrong, Eleanor has her blessing.

Perversely they follow the path to the brook that so pleased them on the first day. They walk in aching silence, “moving delicately along the outskirts of an open question,” which could “never be answered or forgotten.” Then there’s a terrible change in the path: the dark trees turn ghastly white, the grass colorless, the pale path black. Theodora clutches Eleanor’s arm as they push on, each step forward the “only sane choice.” Now I am really afraid, Eleanor thinks. Does something whiter than the white trees move beside them, beckoning?

The path comes to its “destined end,” a sunlit garden in which a family, mother and father and children and puppy, enjoy an idyllic summer picnic. As Eleanor watches a child tumble after the puppy, Theodora screams. “Don’t look back,” she cries. “Run!”

They flee into the picnic clearing, which becomes a night-dark and weed-choked garden. They beat on a stone, begging for exit, until they push through a rusty iron gate. Crying and holding hands, they run through the kitchen garden of Hill House, crash into the kitchen, and find that Luke and Montague have been searching for them for hours.

Eleanor tries to explain about the picnic. Theodora, laughing thinly, says she had to go and look back. The children, the puppy, Eleanor repeats. She and Theodora end up holding each other, while Eleanor looks up at the men and feels “the room rock madly, and time, as she had always known time, stop.”


Ruthanna’s Commentary

I have a less-than-shocking confession to make, which is that I don’t fundamentally understand chapters. For my first novel I just wrote the story straight through; my editor very patiently added chapter divisions at reasonable-seeming points. For the second, I did the post-hoc division myself, complete with “Is this right???” marginal queries. So along with everything else that impresses me about Hill House, my fascination with the chapter and sub-chapter breaks reaches kneeling-at-the-feet-of-the-master proportions. Every time I start taking notes for a post, I worry that the multiple sub-sections will give me too many disparate things to talk about. And every time, I discover that they’re variations on a theme, episodes pointing to a central idea.

The core of Chapter 5 was the fracturing relationship between Eleanor/Nell and Theo, and Eleanor’s own internal fractures. This week—though the fractures continue playing out—it’s all the ways your parents, present or absent, can screw you up. Luke picks the worst possible way to try for Eleanor’s good side, by expressing envy that she had a mother. Eleanor, still struggling to get away from her now-deceased mother’s control, is horrified and offended at his reading of her—but unwilling to show him any of that reaction, let alone share the truth about that fraught parental relationship. Theo’s the only one she’s told (while Theo has steadfastly neglected any such confession in return). Jackson likes to play with the horror of disappointed expectations and relationships that aren’t what you wanted them to be—here those don’t stand alone, but are part of the larger fabric of Hill House’s distortions.

Next, Luke discovers Hugo Crain’s horrible Puritan baby book. I don’t believe we’ve previously learned the sisters’ names, leaving it ambiguous which one was Sophia. My guess is that she’s the older sister, the one who inherited the house. My further, deeply-creeped-out guess, is that the house was intended to help her “hold apart from this world.” The way it isolates residents from external connections and even the normal worldly flow of time, the way it appears deeply aware of everyone’s worst flaws—these seem like the sorts of things that a REALLY TERRIBLE FATHER might design to try and keep his daughter pure, and I hope you’re all making the same face I am right now.

Finally, twisting back around to Eleanor and Theo, the two don’t exactly make up, but they do get stuck on a creepy haunted path and encounter a creepy manifestation in the garden. (Have you noticed that some of the most impressive effects happen when they’re together? The blood-stricken room, the hand in the darkness, now the full-on flashback. It’s not safe to put all your psychics in one place.) This time it’s an idyllic vision of parents picnicking with their children—idyllic except for whatever it is that Theo sees behind them. Given what we now know of Hugo Crain, the idyll has to be an illusion, the thing behind presumably some aspect of the truth. The string of dead wives? The vision of hell that Dad held over everyone? Fear itself?

In among all of these bad parents, the relationships between the living characters continue their fraught way. Eleanor clearly has a script in her head for the “lovers meeting,” with Luke the obvious lover—but she quickly discerns that he is not, actually, her ideal mate. Even aside from my determined Theonor ship, I was relieved to have her come to my conclusion: Luke is just not that interesting. The guy looking for a replacement mom is a familiar type; he’s unusual only in that he admits his Lost Boy status. But Eleanor still expects to compete with Theo over him, and Theo is at least willing to play along, possibly even to the point of seducing him despite her obvious lack of attachment. It’s in the script, after all.

And even so, it’s Theo with whom it would be too dangerous to ask a question like “Do you love me?” Though the unspoken question is specifically not that one, it still marks their relationship as the emotional heart of everything happening at Hill House. Luke’s just there to complicate it.


Anne’s Commentary

You couldn’t ask for an episode of The Bachelor more fraught with interfeminine competition than this chapter of Hill House. Will Luke hand the rose to Eleanor or Theodora? Seriously, though. Do either Eleanor or Theodora really care about Luke? More seriously, what’s the real bone of contention Hill House can use against Eleanor and Theodora with regard to each other?

Dr. Montague often warns they must all guard against whatever malevolent force walks alone in Hill House. I’m thinking he and Luke needn’t worry about themselves; Hill House seems more interested in the ladies of the spook party—as does author Jackson.

So far Montague has served ably as paranormal expert and party mediator and has, we assume, taken copious notes on the phenomena endemic to Hill House (the stubbornly closing doors, the nursery cold spot) and the phenomena centering on Eleanor and Theodora (the door-knocking, the wall-writing, the bloodbath in Theo’s room, the phantom hand.) He and Luke have personally experienced the black dog in the hallway, an apparition whose apparent “purpose” was to separate them from the women so the latter could bear the real brunt of Hill House’s opening efforts. Luke gets a solo scare when he discovers the first wall-writing, but the writing itself is aimed straight at Eleanor. Otherwise Hill House’s future owner seems little discommoded. For example, the tower library that repulses Eleanor doesn’t bother Luke, who browses its contents thoroughly enough to discover Hugh Crain’s scrapbook. The scrapbook repulses the women most strongly, Montague on a less visceral level, but Luke shows a certain morbid fascination for its horrors. Maybe that overgrown schoolboy aspect of his personality does take prurient delight in the book.

Chapter Six needs no black dog (in British folklore a demonic or spectral entity associated with the Devil and portents of death) to isolate Eleanor and Theodora. With Montague and Luke absorbed in their nightly chess game, the two women must entertain each other. My opening Bachelor quip aside, I don’t believe that (deprived of male companionship) women have no other social recourse than to fight over men. I doubt Shirley Jackson believes this, either.

In fact, she uses Chapter Six to eliminate Luke as anyone’s love interest. It opens with Eleanor and Luke’s sole (potentially romantic) tete-a-tete. As Eleanor will shortly tell Theodora, she had to come to Hill House. Likewise, she has to fix on someone to be her journey’s end lover. The only bachelor in the party, Luke’s the obvious choice. At the summerhouse, unfortunately, he confirms her early impression that he’s essentially self-centered. Simultaneously Jackson further reveals Eleanor’s self-centeredness. Tell me something about yourself, she semi-coyly begs Luke, but she’s truly interested in how whatever Luke says will reveal his opinion of her. His reply—“I never had a mother”—shocks Eleanor. When he subsequently implies that he sees Eleanor as a potential mother-figure, her hopes decline precipitously. His closing remark that Eleanor was lucky to have a mother, puts him out of “lover” contention entirely. Eleanor was not lucky in her mother. Eleanor doesn’t want to be anyone’s mother. Eleanor needs a mother herself, an ideal mother, that is. All she wants is to be cherished, and who but a mother can grant such unconditional love?

Jackson’s sole reference to Eleanor’s father is that he died when she was twelve. Shortly after, the stones started falling on her house. For me, this implies that Eleanor’s father was the parent who (comparatively, anyhow) cherished her. The second section of Chapter Six gives us a thoroughly unsavory father-figure in Hugh Crain, whose proclaimed love for daughter Sophia takes the toxic form of his horrific “educational” scrapbook. Still, if a mother-figure continues to fail Eleanor….

Ironically, Theodora plays Eleanor’s mother (or at least big-sister) in the chapter’s last section. Perceiving that Luke can meet Eleanor’s desperate reaching-out only with casual flirtation, she tries to warn Eleanor off him. Retaliating, Eleanor implies that Theodora wants Luke herself, but she realizes the question of “Do you love me?” isn’t between anyone and Luke but between her and Theo. The further question is what kind of love can the Eleanor-Theodora connection offer.

No wonder the path the women tread shifts from its natural state into a supernaturally heightened emotional reality where black is white and white black, summer warmth winter chill, all values reversed, courtesy of Hill House and their own contributions to its powers. Eleanor and Theodora see radically different things at the path’s end. Eleanor looks into her ideal world of a living father and a nurturing mother and a gleeful child in a scarlet jumper (Eleanor’s red sweater!) Theodora, looking behind, sees what Hill House truly offers, something so terrifying she can’t or won’t describe it. Running’s the only escape, as Montague has already cautioned.

Eleanor doesn’t see the Terrible Thing. All she remembers is the picnic, the child, the puppy. When she feels “time, as she had always known it, stop,” does Jackson mean that Eleanor blacks out?

Or does she mean that, for Eleanor, this night’s experience has permanently altered her relation to reality?



This week’s metrics

Going Down With My Ship: There’s a lot of hand-holding and leaning against each other in that last section.

Libronomicon: MEMORIES, for SOPHIA ANNE LESTER CRAIN; A Legacy for Her Education and Enlightenment During Her Lifetime From Her Affectionate and Devoted Father, HUGH DESMOND LESTER CRAIN… obviously destined to be a bestselling classic.

Madness Takes Its Toll: Caught on the path to the garden, Eleanor “felt every slow step as a willed act, a precise mad insistence upon the putting of one foot down after the other as the only sane choice.” The blurred contrast between “madness” and “sanity,” between choice and the absence of choice, seems extremely representative of the Hill House experience. She also keeps telling herself “Now I am really afraid,” which says interesting things about all the screaming in earlier chapters.


Next week, Garry Kilworth proposes a convenient way to provide companionship in isolation, in “Hogfoot Right and Bird-Hands.” You can find it in The Weird.

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, 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 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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