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 8 of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, first published in 1959. Spoilers ahead.
“What do people really want with each other, as Nell asked me once; what use are other people?”
It’s breakfast-time on the morning after Hill House didn’t actually shake itself to splinters, and Eleanor finds she can now hear everything, all over the house. Mrs. Montague and Arthur are tired and upset, Mrs. M. because the nursery was too stuffy and Arthur because some pestilential branch kept tapping on his window. Worse, they detected no “manifestations” at all—maybe better luck tonight?
Eleanor and Theodora are working on their notes, when suddenly Eleanor declares that at summer’s end, she means to come home with Theodora. She’s never had anyone to care about and wants to be someplace she belongs. Theodora tries to joke Eleanor out of this plan. After all, when summer ends, they’ll be happy to return to their own homes—Hill House isn’t forever. Eleanor persists. Exasperated, Theodora snaps, “Do you always go where you’re not wanted?” Placidly, Eleanor replies, “I’ve never been wanted anywhere.”
Luke describes Hill House to Theodora and Eleanor as “so motherly,” filled with embracing chairs that turn out to be hard, and soft glass hands beckoning; most repulsive are the omnipresent globes, light shades and candy dishes and the bosomy figure supporting the stair-rail. Perhaps he won’t be gentle to Hill House when it’s his—he may smash its too-maternal fittings. Theo says he’s frightening Eleanor, and Luke says he’s only talking nonsense.
The three walk to the brook. Luke continues talking “nonsense,” but Eleanor interrupts with the revelation that it’s her fault her mother died. Her mother knocked on the wall and called, but Eleanor slept through it all, or else woke and then went back to sleep. Theodora suggests that she likes believing it her fault. It was always going to be her fault, Eleanor replies.
Eleanor takes the lead on the narrow path, thinking happily about how she’ll live near Theodora and shop together for lovely things. She asks if the others are talking about her; Luke responds (politely) that they’re engaged in “a struggle between good and evil for the soul of Nell.” Annoyed, Theodora says they’re not talking about Nell at all.
Still happy, Eleanor walks on. Luke and Theo are both very kind. She was very right to come to Hill House, because journeys end in lovers meeting. As the path descends, she doesn’t need to look back, for she can hear her friends’ footsteps. Only when she reaches the brook does she turn around. No one’s there. But she hears footsteps and voices, sees grass bending under invisible feet. A voice both inside and outside her head calls “Eleanor, Eleanor,” and it’s the call she’s listened for all her life. Oddly substantial air embraces her warmly. Don’t let me go, she thinks, then Stay stay as her embracer moves off, invisible feet rippling in the brook and compressing the grass on the other side.
Crying, she runs back up the hill. She finds Luke and Theodora sitting under a tree, laughing softly. She expected them by the brook, Eleanor explains. Theodora claims they called her to come back. Luke, seeming embarrassed, backs her up.
Lunch finds Mrs. Montague still prickly, especially when Theodora flirts with Arthur. After, Luke and Theodora go to the summerhouse. Eleanor creeps behind it to eavesdrop. She waits in vain for them to talk about her: first Luke sings a silly murder ballad, then the two wonder if Dr. Montague will include them in his book on Hill House, and Mrs. Dudley, and Mrs. M. and Arthur. They don’t even mention Eleanor, then run off to explore the brook without her.
Eleanor next eavesdrops outside the parlor, where Dr. Montague tries futilely to write while Arthur chatters. She eavesdrops outside the kitchen, where Mrs. Montague and Mrs. Dudley chat companionably. Amazingly, Mrs. Dudley defends Luke and Theodora against Mrs. Montague’s frets over the immorality of young people running around unsupervised—they’re old enough to watch out for themselves. Neither mentions Eleanor.
After dinner, Luke and Theodora tease Eleanor, but when Theodora’s attacks become more spiteful, Luke retreats to chess with Dr. Montague. Theodora, piqued, falls silent. No matter—Eleanor listens to all the tiny sounds of the house, inside and out. The library, where Mrs. Montague and Arthur consult Planchette, is the only place she can’t penetrate. Mrs. Montague bursts into the parlor, outraged that Planchette hasn’t written a word to her that evening—it’s the others’ fault, for their cynicism and incredulity! Dr. Montague and Luke return to their game; Theodora listens sympathetically. Eleanor pays little attention. She hears someone walking around the room, talking to himself. Is it Luke? No, he hasn’t left the chessboard.
It’s someone invisible, who sings softly: Go walking through the valley, go in and out the windows, go forth and face your lover/As we have done before. The voice is light, sweet and thin: A child’s? Eleanor recognizes the song, thinks we used to play that game. Something almost brushes her face, a sigh against her cheek.
None of the others heard it, she thinks with joy. Nobody heard it but me.
This week’s metrics
Going Down With My Ship: Eleanor wants to follow Theo home, and go shopping together, and call herself just Eleanor (though not, I note, Nell). But Theo, of course, already has someone waiting—this is, she all but says aloud, just a summer fling.
The Degenerate Dutch: Fancy sauces, quoth Arthur, are the mark of a cad. Also a cad-ness indicator: women waiting on you. And, one gathers, caring more about classes than sports, unless that’s the mark of a milksop. Is a milksop different from a cad?
Arthur has to be based on someone specific that Jackson knew, doesn’t he? He has that sense about him. I wonder if the fellow in question ever read Hill House, or if reading books by women is also the mark of a cad/milksop.
Libronomicon: In a library containing such gems as Hugo Crain’s horrifying spiritual guidance to his daughter, Arthur finds… a book about how to make candles from crayons. (And reads bits aloud to Montague as the poor man tries to work, in a way that would surely justify adding a murder to Hill House’s body count.)
This is the most confusing and, by my lights at least, the scariest chapter of Hill House so far. But then, I would infinitely rather have mysterious blood splashed across all my things than discover—or worse, miss—that I’ve been forcing myself on people who mock or ignore me behind my back. (Though I suppose both is an unpleasant possibility; Carrie, I am looking at you.)
Assuming that is one of the things happening to Eleanor. It’s hard to tell, as the emotional manipulation I noted last time becomes increasingly blatant. Why is Eleanor suddenly planning to follow Theo home and buy beautiful toaster ovens together? Does she assume she can persuade Theo to accept the plan, or has her life so far left her entirely bereft of the concept of consensual relationships? Or is she just in denial? Or… is the house pushing her into a setup where she’ll be rejected by everyone else, and left with no choice but to stay in the only place where she’s ever belonged?
Because the house does seem to be, in it’s own extremely screwed-up way, courting her. It opens itself to her, offering an uncanny awareness of almost everything going on within its walls. Ghosts caress her gently, or sing sweet songs from childhood games.
The rest of the party, meanwhile, say things that seem to make no sense, or that confirm Eleanor’s worst fears, or that fail to acknowledge her existence at all. Is the house manipulating them as well, or playing puppet—or do these conversations even take place outside Eleanor’s head? Confusing the whole thing further, Mrs. Montague and Arthur continue clomping through the story like spirit-suppressing elephants—they’re in a different reality tunnel entirely, one entirely bereft of “manifestations.” Even their experience of Mrs. Dudley is different; she goes shockingly off-script when chatting with Mrs. Montague, speaking fondly of the young people and accepting help with dishes.
Perhaps the house is actively preventing Mrs. Montague and Arthur from noticing its true weirdness, or perhaps the blatant manifestations are entirely projected into the brains of our foursome. Either option increases the odds that Eleanor’s experiences diverge from everyone else’s—that she’s falling into the absolute reality of the house, and away from the consensus reality in which her companions take notes and play chess and sing murder ballads. The “struggle between good and evil for the soul of Nell” is not evenly matched. This is, after all, “a call she had been listening for her whole life,” and whether that means it’s the horrible call she heard every day from her mother and doesn’t know how to refuse, or some she always waited for and never heard, the end result will be the same.
I suspect that, whatever other lovers Eleanor wants to end her journey by meeting, Hill House intends to keep her. After all, as she projected to Planchette (or perhaps as the house suggested through that route), she just wants someone to care about, some place to belong. The house can be a lover, or as Luke suggests (but Eleanor would probably hate to consider) a mother.
And after everyone else returns to their preexisting lives—she will walk there alone.
To begin, I must return to the end of Chapter Seven. Theodora describes the cataclysmic night before as Hill House “taking us on a mad midnight fling.” As usual, psychologically and spiritually speaking, Theo nails it. Hill House, with Eleanor as its object and however little-witting partner, has performed a violent courtship ritual, ending in the climactic “collapse” of the library tower and Eleanor’s swooning surrender: “I will relinquish my possession of this self of mine, give over willingly what I never wanted at all.”
The original ending of Stoker’s Dracula, which surfaced in the 1980s in an author-emended typescript, vividly described the explosive disintegration of the Count’s mountain hold, and this aftermath:
“From where we stood it seemed as though the one fierce volcano burst had satisfied the need of nature and that the castle and the structure of the hill had sunk again into the void. We were so appalled with the suddenness and the grandeur that we forgot to think of ourselves.”
Stoker’s biographer, Barbara Belford, suggests he deleted this ending either because he wanted the castle intact for a sequel, or because he feared it too reminiscent of Poe’s “Usher.” In his introduction to the Modern Library’s Dracula, Peter Straub speculates that Stoker (and/or his publishers) might have found the all-but-explicit sexual imagery too much to flow from the pen of Mina Harker. Especially with her “forgetting herself” in the “grandeur” of it all. Kind of like Eleanor “forgetting herself” after the “great, shaking” headlong crash of the tower.
All Stoker’s semi-coyness aside, Dracula is Mina’s lover, seducer, ravager. With my Sexual Metaphor Detection Goggles (patent pending) in place, I see more and more clearly that Hill House stands in the same relation to Eleanor. She’s been consciously looking for her lover since starting to hum about how journeys end. Chapter Eight introduces the traditional circle game lyric, Go forth and face your lover… as we have done before.
Hill House is the “we” in the lyric, the hardcore ravager of souls. On the night after Mrs. Montague arrives replete with “pure love,” it inflicts the impurest “love” on Eleanor via psychic assault. It’s over for her, she thinks. It’s too much. She is the victim. At the same time, she gives over willingly what she never wanted at all, and Hill House can have whatever it wants of her. She gives consent.
Which is it, Eleanor? Are you dragged kicking and screaming or are you swept off your feet?
In Chapter Eight, Eleanor still wavers. Having crudely breached her virginity, the House changes tactics, offering her the soft blandishments of its secret sounds, its breathing and heartbeat. Smart move: Make Eleanor feel special in perceiving what the others cannot. Call her name as she’s longed to hear it called all her life, as no one else will call it.
Or is there someone else who could call her? In a last effort to resist Hill House, Eleanor tests whether any of its living residents can save her. Dr. Montague, though well-meaning, is caught up in his work. Theodora and Luke, though charming, are essentially self-centered. Luke has already put Eleanor off by playing his poor-motherless-me card, relegating her to the unflattering role of big sister or aunt while intensifying his safe flirtation with Theodora. His disquisition on the maternal anti-charms of Hill House is at least partly aimed at scaring Eleanor off. And, as Theodora senses, Eleanor is frightened. For her, Hill House (with its intimidating tower, its hard wooden trees) is masculine, a “safety” lover not to be threatened. And Theodora —
Oh, Theodora. Did you ever really like Eleanor? Were you ever sincerely attracted to her? Yes and yes, I say, but—
Oh, Theodora. You cannot love selflessly. When the center of attention and need in a relationship shifts away from you, you’re essentially out of there. And, whoa Nelly, is Nell needy. High maintenance. A stray cat, exactly. It’s too bad, but once Eleanor threatens to follow Theo home, Theo must resort to being actively repellent.
In contrast, Hill House pursues Eleanor, calling her name and embracing her in “tight and safe” warmth. It is lover. It is mother. It is child, murmuring a song from Eleanor’s own childhood and kissing her cheek with a sigh.
Best of all, Hill House favors only Eleanor with such intimacy. She sees, hears, feels what the others can’t. That’s fair, since the others don’t see or hear or feel Eleanor. Theodora and Luke ditch her on their walk to the brook. Worse, when she eavesdrops in the summerhouse, desperate to hear what they really think of her, they don’t even mention her name. The ultimate insult isn’t to think badly of someone, it’s not to think of someone at all.
Jackson repeatedly slaps Eleanor with this insult as she roams Hill House in search of recognition. Dr. Montague and Arthur are absorbed in annoying each other. Mrs. Montague and Mrs. Dudley consider only Luke and “that pretty Theodora lady” worth gossiping about.
It’s the equivalent of Eleanor Googling her name and getting no results at all to prove she exists. Theodora not only appropriates Eleanor’s blue dress—could it ever have belonged to Eleanor, Luke wonders—but says that she (Theodora) is Eleanor, her love with an E who is ethereal and who lives in expectation. What is ethereal is slight to vanishing. Expectation is uncertain, no here-and-now reality.
Yet Eleanor is calm, even joyful. She’s cushioned against rejections from the living, because the not-living have accepted her.
The end comes fast now.
Next week, a different sort of haunting and a different sort of relationship between the dead and living, in Aimee Ogden’s “His Heart is the Haunted House.”
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is 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.