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 finish Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, first published in 1959, with Chapter 9. Spoilers ahead.
“It’s the only time anything’s ever happened to me. I liked it.”
With everyone tucked into bed, Eleanor creeps barefoot from her and Theodora’s room. She’s awakened with the thought of going to the library.
At the tower door, she’s repelled by the smell of decay. “Mother,” she says. “Come along,” replies a voice from above. “Mother?” Eleanor calls again, eliciting a “little soft laugh.” She runs upstairs, sees no one, says “You’re here somewhere.” “Somewhere,” is the reply.
Eleanor runs to pound on the nursery door. Mrs. Montague invites her in, poor troubled spirit that she must be. Eleanor pounds next on Arthur’s door, then Theodora’s, Luke’s, Dr. Montague’s, convinced they’ll be too afraid to emerge, but Theodora shouts an alarm they can’t ignore: Nell’s missing! Eleanor flees into the darkness below. As it did during their initial explorations, the library repels her. Over the others’ calls, she hears a distant voice: “Coming? Coming?” From hiding, she watches her pursuers rush outdoors—the fools, so easily tricked. Then she dashes room to room, pausing to “dance” with the statue of Hugh Crain and sing “Go in and out the windows.” Unseen hands take hers. She exits to the veranda and circles the building. Reaching the front doors, she re-enters as if Hill House were her own. “Here I am,” she announces.
Luke, the last one she wants catching her, answers: “Eleanor?” She runs into the library, prohibited no longer. The room is “deliciously, fondly” warm. Its stone floor caresses her feet. She’s broken the spell and she is home. She ascends the spiral staircase, thinking that time has ended and all the potential homes she passed on her drive are gone, along with the little old lady who was going to pray for her.
Eleanor reaches the railed platform beneath the turret trapdoor. Far below, small, stand the Montagues, Arthur and Luke. The name of the fifth person, silent and standing apart, she can’t remember. Montague implores her to come down slowly. Luke starts up the staircase. Eleanor hammers at the locked trapdoor. Looking down, she finally recognizes Theodora.
Luke reaches Eleanor. Terrified and furious, he harangues her into starting down. Though the stairway seemed secure as she climbed, Eleanor now feels it shaking and groaning. The supports have rotted away—it could collapse any moment. Mrs. Montague and Arthur retreat to the door; Montague and Theodora call encouragement. Eleanor stumbles. Theodora runs to hold the end of the staircase. At last it’s over. Eleanor reaches the floor. Luke jumps down after her.
Mrs. Montague, indignant at Eleanor’s “ridiculous performance,” sweeps herself and Arthur off. Luke calls her “an imbecile.” The doctor’s inclined to agree. Theodora asks, “I suppose you had to do it, Nell?”
Eleanor can only say that she came down to the library for a book.
Next morning, Montague tells Eleanor that she’s leaving. Luke will retrieve her car; Theodora will pack for her. She doesn’t need to share Eleanor’s clothes anymore—Mrs. Montague has investigated the green room, where she’s found no blood and Theodora’s clothes undamaged.
Eleanor explains that she can’t leave—she made up her apartment, she stole the car. But Mrs. Montague has called Eleanor’s sister, who, though angry, has agreed to take her back. She thinks Arthur should drive Eleanor home. Montague disagrees. Eleanor must return as she came and forget all about Hill House.
Outside, Eleanor smiles at “the amused, certain face of the house”—it waits for her. No one else can satisfy it. She tells Montague she was happy at Hill House. Again aware of all its secret sounds and movements, she declares, “I won’t go away.”
Montague and Luke insist she leave. Theodora’s goodbyes are more conciliatory; she promises they’ll visit, maybe someday even share that picnic.
Eleanor slides into her car, which feels awkward and unfamiliar. All wave as she begins driving, as is only civil. Journeys end in lovers meeting. But she won’t go. They can’t make her leave if Hill House wants her to stay. Which it does. She slams the accelerator pedal and speeds down the driveway. When they realize what’s happening, they won’t be able to catch her.
She sends the car directly at the great tree at the curve, thinking I am doing this all by myself; this is me, I am really doing it by myself. Then, “in the unending, crashing second before the car hurled into the tree,” she thinks clearly Why am I doing this? Why don’t they stop me?
Epilogue: Mrs. Sanderson is relieved when Dr. Montague and party leave Hill House. Theodora’s friend is delighted to see her back so soon. Luke goes to Paris. Montague retires after the cool reception of his article. Hill House itself, not sane, stands against its hills, holding darkness within; silence lies steadily against its wood and stone, and whatever walks there, walks alone.
Only one other closing line crushes me as much as Jackson’s “…and whatever walked there, walked alone.” That’s Orwell’s close to 1984, in which Winston Smith realizes: “He loved Big Brother.” For me, the antithesis of Jackson’s close is Tolkien’s to The Lord of the Rings: Returned to Hobbiton after the Grey Havens farewells, Samwise Gamgee says, “Well, I’m back.” What he’s back to is home and family and a future, if not untouched by bearing the One Ring (an impossibility), at least unravaged by it. Sam’s home. He won’t walk alone. He remains Samwise.
Eleanor isn’t so fortunate. She neither finds the home she’s longed for, nor does she remain Eleanor. Like Winston, subsumed into the monster collective of Oceania, Eleanor is subsumed into Hill House.
In Chapter Nine, Jackson resounds her thematic motifs, reminding us that these are the words, the ideas, that matter, the keys to her meaning. Simultaneously, she weaves the motifs into a braid so much more complex than the sum of its strands that, though we’ve reached book’s end, we remain intrigued, trembling on the verge of comprehension, sometimes thinking we’ve heard the master melody and unravelled the braid to its semantic core, then realizing Wait, there’s more here.
Realizing there’s more is what drives science and art. Embrace the uncertainty of more, but unlike Eleanor, realize it’s uncertain.
So, what are those words and ideas that matter in Hill House? To start, there are house and home. These aren’t synonyms, as an acquaintance of mine knew who insisted her real estate agent put out a sign that read not HOUSE FOR SALE but HOME FOR SALE. HOME expressed her feeling for the building that had sheltered her family for half a century. HOUSE was too neutral, too cold, for her.
It’s home Eleanor’s seeking. A house with stone lions. A kingdom guarded by oleanders. A little apartment of her own. Tragically, Hill House can never be anyone’s Hill Home. To those falling under its spell, Hill House appears solid and comfortable. In fact, every angle is subtly skewed. It’s a marvel of evil engineering that the place has stood for eighty years and may stand for eighty more.
At first Eleanor’s struck by the wrongness of Hill House. Gradually it skews her first impression to the conviction that it’s the most right place for her. COME HOME ELEANOR ceases to terrify and begins to thrill her. The house favors her beyond the rest by syncing with her senses, making her, alone, cognizant of its secret stirrings. In Chapter Nine, she claims the house by formally entering through the front doors. Whatever psychic part she’s played in its manifestations, she now becomes its bodily agent, pounding doors with her own fists and fleeting ghost-like on her own feet. The nursery no longer chills her. The library no longer repels, nor does the double helix of its staircase daunt her, not until the others’ horror shocks her from communion.
Emotionally connected with HOME are three other ideas central to understanding Hill House: MOTHER, CHILD, LOVER. Which roles does Hill House play toward Eleanor, and vice versa? Here the semantic braiding gets thoroughly complicated.
In one of Eleanor’s road-trip fantasies, she’s a princess returning home to a loving queen-mother. At a restaurant she observes a seemingly ideal mother. Hill House, as Luke observes, is like a mother who promises tenderness “she” fails to deliver.
In Chapter Nine, Eleanor twice identifies Hill House as maternal. When the library repels her with its “odor of decay,” her spoken response is “Mother.” Understandable: Eleanor’s actual mother is dead. The house responds with a call of “Come along.” Eleanor runs toward the sound, eager, again saying “Mother?”
The house’s voice becomes little, laughing; like it, Eleanor role-switches fluidly from seeking mother to playfully hiding child, gleeful at how easily she tricks the lumbering others. On the veranda, she experiences the “pressing, heavy” hills as comforting. Hill House, the womb, lies “protected and warm” within a greater womb, which makes it “lucky,” child-Eleanor thinks.
Hill House slips into its third role when Eleanor confronts the statue whose principal (ah, highly masculine) figure presumably represents Hugh Crain. She invites Crain to dance; Crain accepts, or at least someone’s spectral hands take Eleanor’s. Go in and out the windows, she sings. Journeys end in lovers meeting. Luke and Theodora have both declined to be the lovers met. That leaves Hill House and turns its maternal aspect erotic. Those “pressing, heavy” hills, that tower “held so tightly in the embrace of the house,” the library which when finally entered is “deliciously, fondly warm,” its stone floor moving “caressingly, rubbing itself against the soles of her feet,” its very air “stirring her hair” and “coming in a light breath across her mouth.” Eleanor climbs the spiral staircase, intoxicated, envisioning Hill House “rising triumphantly between the trees, tall over the road.” And then, as in the moment of consummation, time ends, Eleanor’s finally home with her lover.
Then the other ghosthunters crash Eleanor’s honeymoon. Worse, Luke proves the least romantic knight-errant in chivalric history, visibly terrified and audibly resentful of the maiden-in-distress. The next morning, as if she were a vampire, he formally retracts his welcome to Hill House.
Hill House isn’t so fickle. In its “amused, certain face,” Eleanor sees that it waits for her; “no one else could satisfy it.” Unlike everyone else in her life, it won’t turn her out or shut her out or laugh at her or hide from her.
It will just kill her most cruelly, letting her think death is her choice until in that last “unending, crashing second” before impact, Eleanor thinks “clearly.”
Her thought is the unanswerable question of the novel: “Why am I doing this?”
My response is another unanswerable question: Oh Nell, you mother and child and lover, in search of your mother and child and lover, could you have done anything else?
That… is not quite how I anticipated Eleanor making her final union with Hill House. It makes sense, though: the house eats women. Crain’s wives it takes directly, like Eleanor; his daughters more slowly; Mrs. Dudley in some stranger way. It will not brook any lapse in its control. It will have its victims, one way or another.
Even at the beginning of the chapter, it has Eleanor’s mind for its own. She’s one with the house now—pounding on doors and leading visitors to search, terrified, in the dark. She no longer gets lost, because she’s no longer an entirely separate creature to get lost. And still the house wants her dead—flung from the tower by preference, the same place the companion (maybe) died, but crashed in the drive like Crain’s first wife if that’s all it can get. Is it playing out scripts, or just vicious and hungry? Is it angry that, at the last, Eleanor breaks its control enough to share her truth, or can she tell that truth because it no longer care about her living lies?
And what would’ve happened if Arthur had tried to drive her home? Would he, insensible of manifestations, still have crashed the car? Or would he have delivered her successfully from one controlling abuser to another? Hill House is certainly willing and able to use pawns in its murders—I’m suspect that’s why Luke threatens to push Eleanor down the stairs, and that he comes closer to doing so than he admits.
I have so many questions, but this is not a book about answers. Despite Dr. Montague’s tepid attempts at investigation, Hill House does not lend itself to discovery. We aren’t going to find out whether it contains real ghosts, or which of its tragic denizens might haunt it, or whether it’s “haunted” by its own malicious architecture. We aren’t going to find out whether the rest of the party goes free because the house depends on Eleanor’s poltergeist tendencies as a battery, or simply because it’s sated by its desired prey. We’re not going to find out whether Crain’s daughter ever read his horrible book. We’re not going to find out how Theo’s clothes got supernaturally dry-cleaned.
But we know what happened. Eleanor fled from one abuser to another, tried to leave, and died for it.
I do have my suspicions about the list of hypotheses above. Earlier, I described Hill House as an “all of the above” haunting. And I wonder if the reason it goes after Eleanor, and Eleanor’s psychic power, is that it is what it eats—that it has so many terrifying special effects because it gains some capability from each of its victims.
Because, here’s the thing. The book ends with more-or-less the same description of Hill House that introduced us: it’s not sane, it’s 80 years old, it’s walls are upright, bricks meet neatly, floors are firm, doors are sensibly shut, silence lies steadily… and we know, now, that most of that is lies. The walls are not upright, the floors are not firm, the silence is broken by pounding and whispers and giggles. So perhaps it is, also, a lie that whatever walks there walks alone.
Perhaps Eleanor’s ghost now walks, finally and forever at home, with the spirits of desolate wives, constrained daughters, the tyrant Crain, and the house playing Terrible Mother/Lover/Child to them all. Perhaps her power joins theirs. And perhaps the house’s future visitors—next time someone is foolish and arrogant and curious enough to visit—will hear, along with the pounding and childish giggles, a sing-song voice chanting, repeating, “Journeys end in lovers meeting.”
I sure hope they get out quickly.
This week’s metrics
Going Down With My Ship: I knew it was horror when I picked it up, yeah? But still Theo—pulling now that Eleanor no longer threatens her domestic tranquility—calls her “my Nellie,” and begs her to be happy, and promises letters and visits. And touches her cheek and suggests a reunion picnic by the brook.
But afterwards, she does go home and regain that domestic tranquility—finding her “friend” contrite and glad to have her back. I wonder how much Theo confesses about her time away.
Libronomicon: Dr. Montague’s article on the psychic phenomena of Hill House turns out to be, at best, good bedtime reading for his colleagues. Maybe next time he should pick more dramatic fodder for inspiration.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Hill House. Still not sane.
Next week, we change up our usual pattern for a wrap-up post on Hill House while the shivers are still fresh in our minds. After that another short story—and after that we start our new alternating-weeks longread, T. Kingfisher’s The Hollow Places!
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.