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 7 of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, first published in 1959. Spoilers ahead.
“The spirits dwelling in this house may be actually suffering because they are aware that you are afraid of them.”
On the day Mrs. Montague is expected, Eleanor goes into the hills, wanting to be “secret and out from under the dark wood of the house.” Lying on soft, dry grass, she senses that the trees and flowers pity her as a rootless creation, “heart-breakingly mobile,” but she is filled with “an overwhelming wild happiness.” She wonders: What am I going to do? What am I going to do?
Mrs. Montague arrives late, irritated the party didn’t wait dinner since she did say she’d arrive that day. As driving tires her, she’s brought along Arthur Parker, a schoolmaster who abides no “moping crybabies” and shares her in supernatural matters. She bickers constantly with Dr. Montague, accusing him of contradicting her and approaching the Hill House haunting without systematic rigor. Nor, on first appraisal, does she think much of his assistants.
Luke, Theodora and Eleanor return the favor.
Over dinner, Mrs. Montague describes how she contacts troubled spirits via planchette and her own innate sensitivity; once contacted, she succours them with outpourings of sympathy and pure love. At Luke’s suggestion, she and Arthur sit to planchette in the library while our four heroes gather in their parlor. Montague explains that a planchette is a heart-shaped piece of wood, mounted on wheels that allow it to glide over paper. A pencil is inserted in the narrow end. Sitters place fingertips on the planchette and pose questions, then wait for a receptive spirit to guide the planchette in writing out its answers. Montague derides the practice as schoolgirl superstition—any “answers” come straight from the sitters’ imaginations.
Mrs. Montague and Arthur return to report success: the planchette has said much about a nun. And a monk. Doesn’t that reek of broken celibacy vows? Mrs. Montague fears this nun was walled up alive, like other nuns she’s contacted. Goaded, Dr. Montague insists there’s no record of any nun being walled up, and besides, why would there be a nun in Hill House? He forbids digging in the cellar to check, as he has no authority to alter the house.
Mrs. Montague and Arthur next read a passage from their planchette report that should interest one of the young ladies. It’s a dialogue between the sitters and someone calling herself “Eleanor Nellie Nell Nell.” Nell wants to “be home.” She’s in Hill House “waiting” for “home.” Why? Because of “Mother,” who is “home,” but Nell (a “child”) is “Lost. Lost. Lost.”
Theodora asks why Eleanor should have been singled out. Eleanor wonders the same, but Mrs. Montague has no idea. As Theodora comforts Eleanor, recommending a warm bed and sleep, Eleanor thinks that what she really needs is a quiet spot to lie and think, to dream and tell herself sweet stories.
Mrs. Montague’s plan for the night is to sleep in the most haunted room (the nursery) and wait for further communications, while Arthur patrols with revolver at the ready. All retire, but Theodora tells Eleanor not to undress—Dr. Montague wants them all in his room, fearing Hill House will respond violently to his wife’s “perfect love.”
They’re not long together when the doctor’s door swings open, then slams shut. A strong wind resounds through the hall. Unreal cold follows, forcing Theodora and Eleanor under a quilt. Something bangs on doors downstairs, then crashes up the steps and pounds its way up and down their hall. Montague worries about his wife. Luke pours glasses of brandy. Their locked door shakes violently but soundlessly. When it holds, the force seeking entry resorts to wheedling caresses of the knob and doorframe. Eleanor asks herself how the others can hear noises coming from inside her head. It’s she who’s disappearing into the house, she whom the noise is breaking—why should they be frightened?
Pounding recommences, followed by swift animal pacing, followed by a babbling murmur and mocking laughter that swells to shouting. The whole house begins to shake. Glass breaks as pictures fall from walls and windows shatter. Luke and Montague strain at the door, as if to hold it shut. We’re going, Eleanor thinks. “The house is coming down,” Theodora says calmly, as if beyond fear.
Clinging to a bedpost, Eleanor falls into churning darkness. Something huge crashes; the tower, she supposes. They are lost, for the house is destroying itself. It’s over for her—she will relinquish herself, give over what she’s never wanted at all and let the house have whatever it demands of her. “I’ll come,” she says aloud—
And wakes looking up at Theodora, in a room perfectly quiet and sunlit. Luke sits by the window, face bruised, shirt torn. Montague is freshly combed and neat. It’s another day, he says. They’ve survived, the house is undamaged, and Mrs. Montague and Arthur have slept through it all. Theodora suggests that “Hill House went dancing.” Or somersaulting. Anyhow, it’s almost nine o’clock, so “Come along, baby… Theo will wash your face for you and make you all neat for breakfast.”
As I remember my first reading of Hill House, I blamed all the mayhem on the house and its builder Hugh Crain. The “haunting” initially occurred eighty years back, when the pile rose minutely off in every measurement, malignantly wrong in the accumulation of those deliberate errors. Each death in its vicinity added to the psychic disturbance, with Eleanor the latest innocent victim.
But my first couple rereadings of the novel left me uneasy. Was Jackson really hinting that Eleanor is responsible for some disturbances? I didn’t want to believe it—not of my Eleanor, not of my Shirley. I skimmed resentfully over those hints, or, in more generously, supposed Jackson hadn’t meant to confuse me, to sully my pure sympathy for Nell. She’d just made inadvertent insinuations.
The clean contrast of black and white can still attract me, but increasingly I admire compositions that explore the vast gray spectrum in between. That I’ve pored over Hill House for decades attests to its “grayness,” proves I haven’t yet solved its mysteries. Hell, I haven’t plumbed the first paragraph to its depths, much less the whole novel.
This is a good thing. It means I can reread Hill House forever, tripping over new-felt felicities of language, shivering harder at the unnatural cold of its horrors. This reread, this Chapter Seven in particular, I begin to appreciate how brilliantly Jackson handles the Eleanor question.
The Hill House-Eleanor question, that is, because I’m not absolving the house of blame and throwing it all onto Nell. Hugh Crain did design and build a “house of Hades,” though I doubt he intended to, as his own family suffered first. Hill House sprang out of Crain’s morbid religiosity and macabre tastes (often cousin tendencies!), but made brick and woodwork, it took on a life of its own. Or an anti-life?
Maybe it’s too mechanistic a notion to call an unoccupied Hill House inert, an uncharged battery. Something walks there, however alone. Then four people arrive from whom the House can select its most vulnerable target, or its most compatible ally.
Jackson makes no mystery about the House’s probable focus. Eleanor’s the one who had to come to Hill House. Psychokinetic Eleanor’s the one packing the most potential energy. But—can the House tap Eleanor’s energy without her cooperation, or must she at whatever level of consciousness surrender it?
Supernatural phenomena center on Eleanor, alone or with Theodora. Eleanor denies any wish to draw the phenomena and refutes any agency in their production. Does she believe her own denials? Chapter Seven hints the contrary. Lying alone, Eleanor projects onto surrounding vegetation her self-sympathy: How tragic to be rootless, cursed to mobility. Planchette’s Eleanor-Nelly-Nell doesn’t want to go home, it wants to be home, static rather than mobile, a child fixed to its mother rather than wandering lost. Theodora defies planchette, saying that what the real Nell wants is “her warm bed and a little sleep,” and Eleanor confirms Theodora’s perception: All she wants in the world is “peace, a quiet spot to lie and think…dream and tell myself sweet stories.”
Eleanor knew what she wanted while traveling toward Hill House, telling herself “sweet stories” about such forever homes as an oleander-warded kingdom, a manse guarded by stone lions. When she asks “What am I going to do?,” she realizes that to earn serene passivity, she must act.
To earn Hill House, must she intermesh with Hill House, spilling her secrets so that it can spill them back through wall-scribblings and planchette? Does she power and even direct its climactic antics? Holed up in Dr. Montague’s room, Eleanor senses the pounding is inside her head; she rocks and sways with it; she knows it will do this, then that, as if she were choreographing the terrible dance. “Don’t let it get in,” Theodora whispers, as if pleading with Eleanor. Luke gestures for Eleanor to be quiet. But why are they afraid, how can they hear what’s coming from inside her head? “Now we are going to have a new noise,” she thinks, and the new noises come, a furious animal pacing in the hall and a babbling murmur at the door. “Am I doing it?” Eleanor wonders. “Is that me?”
The babbler mocks her with tiny laughter, and Eleanor thinks again, “It’s inside my head, and it’s getting out, getting out, getting out—”
It sure is, because now floors lurch, glass shatters, the tower topples. The destruction isn’t only in Eleanor’s head, for the others experience it, too. For Eleanor it’s too much, she’ll relinquish her self. “I’ll come,” she says aloud.
Saying it, she wakes to a morning in which the house stands intact. Mrs. Montague and Arthur have slept through the cataclysm, but the other three can attest it happened, or as Theodora puts it, “Hill House went dancing.”
It went dancing, and not solo, I have to think, but with Eleanor as partner. Who’s leading the dance, though, Hill House or Nell?
I could dwell at loving length on Jackson’s comic-ironic genius in introducing Mrs. Montague and Arthur. Space only permits me to say she rivals E. F. Benson in sending up Spiritualism and its followers. Though Hill House has no use for Mrs. M.’s pure love and doesn’t even bother inflicting its danse macabre on her and Arthur, it does take advantage of their planchetting to deliver a message to Eleanor from herself. And what would a spook-party be without someone communing with the Beyond, preferably from a haunted library, which Hill House doesn’t fail to supply.
In the comments on the last chapter, someone brought up one of the weirder aspects of The Haunting of Hill House, which is that—despite an author known for psychologically-sophisticated characters—the emotional arcs don’t quite make neat curves. Terrible things happen, people are petrified out of their skulls, time and space themselves seem to break down… and then almost every morning, Eleanor is delighted, our merry crew are merry, and in general the terror of the previous night seems to have been relegated to some dusty mental corner. It never has the impact one would expect on either mood or behavior. What the hell?
I’m fairly certain that this emotional roller coaster is intentional, and that it’s yet another facet of the House’s mind games. Hill House can evoke irrational terror—why not, then, irrational joy? This pleasure serves two obvious purposes. The first is that it prevents victims from fleeing; by the time the haunting episodes have subsided enough to permit rational action, we’ve flipped to the other side of the punish/reward cycle. The second purpose is contrast: the highs give the victims further to fall with each inevitable breakdown. The House is all the crueler for its capacity for kindness.
On a thematic level—a literal one too, really—the House follows common patterns of abusers. It hits you and then brings flowers. It escalates from episode to episode and then immediately makes you doubt yourself. Everyone brings to the House a history of dysfunctional relationships (including Montague, we see this week), and the House itself was born from them and cultivates new ones. It whispers that the people around you are not to be trusted, finds opportunities for anger and irritation, exacerbates fractures into massive rifts.
So, about that dysfunctional relationship of Montague’s. He swears that aside from the one vice of treacly spiritualism, his wife is wonderful. And yet, here I am rethinking his earlier slip, when telling the others of her planned visit, that “unfortunately” she’d break their isolation. I’d assumed that was the House trying to separate its victims from the outside world, but maybe it’s just how he feels about his wife. She certainly doesn’t seem terribly fond of him. Their opening argument about whether she came when she said she would, and her assumption that he’s perennially pointing out imagined errors or accusing her of lying, seem all too well-practiced. Maybe the House is tipping the scales again, but it hasn’t previously worked that fast. And unlike Theo and Eleanor, there’s no question of the Montagues sharing a bedroom.
Also, where the hell did she dredge up Arthur? Is he just her partner in spiritualism? How does “stalking the halls with revolver drawn” fit with “offering the spirits perfect love and understanding”? Does he think he’s freaking Sherlock Holmes? Put that thing away, dude, and sit down and shut up.
Anyway, I’m with Theo on the likely value of “purest love” in these particular quarters.
Eleanor continues to be the House’s special pet, animating force, and/or energy source. Her thoughts, her fears—her desire for a home and still-fraught relationship with her dead mother—are the only real thing that moves the planchette. (Horrible thought: the house is replacing her mother, both in providing an imprisoning, reassuringly-known home, and in demanding her compliance. And she still doesn’t know how to get away.) It’s her surrender that the House wants, and that seems to placate it—but if the terrifying thing is in her head, getting out, then is she in some way surrendering to herself?
And then she wakes, and everything seems fine. Again.
This week’s metrics
Going Down With My Ship: Theo holds Eleanor’s hand, embraces her under a shared blanket, and offers her brandy from a glass she’s holding. It would be awfully flirty if it weren’t for the existential terror.
Libronomicon: Books are frequently very good carriers of psychic energy, you know. Mrs. Montague cannot think of any time when materialization was in any way hampered by the presence of books.
Next week, we share monstrous discoveries in Gillian Daniels’s “Bobbie and Her Father.”
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.