“The Little Stranger” (2009)

My mother, of all people, recommended I read this, and went so far as to buy me a copy. If you don’t know my mother, she’s a wonderful, strong, smart person who goes completely nuts at the merest mention of scary things. By her own reckoning, it’s been some forty years since she slept without tucking her hands under the covers, thanks to that delicious scene from The Haunting.

(For everybody except my mom: I couldn’t get it to queue up properly, for some reason, but in the video below, the scene in question is at 1:00. For my mom: thanks for life and clothing and stuff. PS: don’t watch this.)

The Little Stranger does, in fact, invite comparison to Shirley Jackson’s gothic ghost story. Both are about houses (SHIT I AM SCARED ALREADY). Both are about, uh, people. In said houses. And ghosts, also in houses.

The similarity, of course, is that both books are self-consciously situated in the gothic genre. Both emphasize place–in this case, architectural place–as an ultimate source of fear. Which is awesome. These houses, so central in both stories, are the repositories of years, decades, centuries’ worth of human emotions; they become living things themselves, which, if you really stop to think about it, can freak your shit right the hell out.

But houses are just houses without people to give them meaning and invest them with a kind of life, psychic or spiritual or otherwise. The Little Stranger is about a house in post-WWII Warwickshire and the people who live in it: the last generation and a half (mother, daughter and son) of an old noble family, the Ayres. It’s also about a country doctor, one Dr. Faraday, who finds himself sent out to the Ayres’ crumbling old manor house, Hundreds Hall, when his partner, Dr. Graham, is unable to call in himself.

[Spoilers ahoy] Faraday gets increasingly caught up in the day-to-day affairs of the house, which is barely managing to stay afloat financially. Mrs. Ayres, the old-by-the-standards-of-the-time-but-by-today’s-standards-a-total-cougar (hyphens!), is naturally unable to run the place herself. So the all the responsibilities of keeping up the house, of running the farm and balancing the accounts and presumably wearing the tweed, falls to her twenty-something son, Roderick, a wounded vet with a “nervous condition” brought about by a plane crash in the war. Meanwhile, the apparently unattractive, tall, awkward daughter, Caroline, seems to be thoroughly enjoying her decline into spinsterhood, flouncing about in mismatched clothes and not giving a damn what the village folk think of her saucy mannerisms and her jaunty biffymuffins and those bloody poodlepatatattishes, wot.

Romance eventually develops, kind of, between Faraday and Caroline (I say, wot), at a pace outstripped by only literally every other physical object in the entire universe. Faraday is, by his own admission, a bit tittlewitted with the ladies (I paraphrase), and the awkwardness that passes for courtship is at times difficult to read. In fact, the bulk of the novel is spent describing the interpersonal dramas between the doctor and the members of the family, who are essentially living the Bear Grylls lifestyle in their giant dilapidated manor. By the end you feel almost as if you could navigate the fictional house pretty easily. You also feel like that’s really not something you’d want to do.

The masterful thing about Waters’ writing is how the supernatural slips in almost under the radar. Whatever ghostly thing is going on, it asserts itself very gradually, always accompanied by a slew of plausible alternative explanations. And refreshingly, instead of the eventual acceptance of the supernatural that characterizes a lot of horror–nobody believes at first, but then a few folks die, and the survivors go find a book/professor/wise woman/hobo/Gypsy (or other stereotype) to interpret it all for them, and suddenly everybody’s down with the ghost shit–Waters has her characters increasingly ostracized by the others when they admit there may be something ghostly going on. Even at the end, when only one of the four main characters remains more or less unchanged by their experiences at the house, that person resists the idea that the things that went down were anything other than freak accidents or insanity.

What happens, you ask? Well, a summary here would do more harm than good, I think. The narrative is, as I’ve said, mostly concerned with the relationships between the main characters. The supernatural events are few and far between, and they serve, at least at first, more to underscore the existing problems at the house–the struggles of the former elite who are outdated in modern English society, the practical concerns of farming and plumbing and wiring and whatnot–than to frighten in the way they would in a true horror story.

[I think I saw a spoiler up ahead] For instance, the Ayres decide at one point to throw a party, inviting some of their gentry friends and spending quite a bit of time getting the old house ready for guests. On the night of the party, one group of friends brings along their young daughter, who annoys the other guests before going over to annoy Caroline’s dog Gyp. Gyp is a placid old dog who’s the model of patience; and, lo and behold, he goes and bites the girl quite badly, making a mess of her face and necessitating a late-night kitchen-table operation by the good Dr. Faraday, who thankfully was on hand. At the same time all of this is happening, we later learn, Roderick, late for the party, is in his room, where objects are mysteriously disappearing only to reappear by falling from the ceiling, and a mirror walks across a shelf and then hurls itself at his face. When he tells Dr. Faraday this, of course, the man of science dismisses it all as delusion. And later, when Rod’s bedroom catches fire mysteriously and the poor guy explains that it was the house trying to get him, the good doctor finally has Rod committed.

This science vs. the supernatural attitude characterizes virtually every occurrence of the latter in the novel. Faraday is the ultra-modernist, the rationalist, positivist debunker of all things supernatural. He becomes, by the novel’s end, something of a witch-hunter: already having committed Rod, he is about to do the same to Mrs. Ayres, who has had her own supernatural experiences, before–well, he’s prevented by unforeseen events. 

The only pro-supernatural arguments come from the Ayres themselves, and from Dr. Seely, a friendly rival of Faraday’s, who is surprisingly open to the idea of psychic phenomena. A telling moment comes when Caroline tries to show Faraday some books she’s discovered in the family library dealing with poltergeists. Faraday responds predictably, dismissing the whole thing as superstition and psychosis. Science to the rescue!

Except science doesn’t work, in the end. It all ends on a tremendously bleak note, which is appropriate for a story about the decay of an old social system and its slow replacement with another. Class struggle is a central theme here–the Ayres would have a ton to discuss with Faulkner’s Comptons–and in a way the supernatural occurrences simply accelerate what is already occurring: the decline of a noble house.

The Little Stranger isn’t for everyone. If you’re a fan of truly frightful, suspenseful, horrific ghost stories, you might want to look elsewhere. But Waters’ take on the supernatural is compelling in its own way. It’s a slow, heavy read, but I stayed up until the wee hours finishing it. The atmosphere is brilliant, and as bleak as it is, I kind of liked the world she portrayed. 90/100.

“The Haunting of Hill House” (1959)

Dr. John Montague was a doctor of philosophy; he had taken his degree in anthropology, feeling obscurely that in this field he might come closest to his true vocation, the analysis of supernatural manifestations. He was scrupulous about the use of his title because, his investigations being so utterly unscientific, he hoped to borrow an air of respectability, even scholarly authority, from his education. [1].

Yes. Just, yes.

This passage is from the first page. Right out of the gate, we know we have a winner. I love everything about this passage, from its assertion that supernatural phenomena are best studied from the vantage of anthropology, to its roundabout concern with the “scientific.” Not only that, but Montague’s reasons for studying anthropology sound surprisingly familiar to me personally, as a folklorist who studies the supernatural, and I think it’s awesome.

Listen to me. Gushing.

But I can’t help it. The first word that comes to mind when I think of Shirley Jackson’s brilliant haunted house novel is delicious. It is a comforting, slightly spicy dessert–like, homemade carrot cake and a cup of good tea on a cold day. It is wonderful. If anyone doubts that horror can be subtle, profound–as well as oddly humane, warm, and inviting–I’ll bet The Haunting of Hill House will change their mind.

As long as they can tell it apart from all those other things, anyway.

The book centers on a group of four people who come to spend a week in Hill House, a rambling old mansion in the unpleasantly-rustic countryside (more on that in a moment). The fearless leader is one Dr. John Montague, who in the strangest example of participant observation ever undertaken by an ethnographer, rounds up his little group and whisks them away to the eponymous domicile in order, essentially, to see if he can’t get a bunch of damned freaky stuff to happen.

Though Montague contacts a large group of potential informants, only two actually show up (hurray ethnography!). These are Eleanor, the protagonist, and Theodora, the coquettish-but-probably-lesbian foil to Eleanor’s frumpy, crazy cat lady. Montague duly explains that he chose these women on the basis of their past experiences with psychic phenomena: Eleanor endured a poltergeist event as a child, and Theodora apparently enjoys some degree of clairvoyance. They are joined as well by Luke, the heir of the Sanderson family, the current owners of the derelict mansion. Together the four of them embark on a week of luxury and dissipation: brandy, chess, strolls on the lawn, relentless ghost  attacks. Pretty par for the course.

But I jest. The Haunting of Hill House is not par for the course. Its scares aren’t cheap. They aren’t accompanied by jarring, discordant imagery, by abrupt violence, by twisted sexuality, or any of the other sets of symbols that are attendant on so much contemporary horror. Hill House relies on the contrast between normalcy and moments of intense, creeping weirdness. These moments are familiar in content: the bizarre cold spot in front of the nursery; the sound of banging moving up and down the upstairs hall while Eleanor and Theodora can only listen, approaching hysteria; the cryptic and frightening writing that appears on walls and seems deliberately timed to drive the characters apart when their only safety is one another. But they are executed with such finesse, with such attention to detail, and with such meticulously crazy narration (it’s all told from Eleanor’s perspective) that the scares leave behind the dull terminology of other works in the horror genre. They are “scares” no longer. They are intrusions, disruptions, challenges to the cozy little atmosphere, the nest that the characters have made for themselves–and by extension, they are intrusions into the normal social world in which we all must exist.

But that’s enough for symbolism and social commentary. The frightening moments in Hill House are by now old hat to anyone who’s ever seen a horror film or read a horror novel; but Jackson’s sparkling prose makes any trace of triteness evaporate. I’ve never heard a recording of her voice, but I’d be willing to bet that Shirley Jackson spoke exactly like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s: that strangely almost-British accent that stylish Americans affected mid-century. That’s the voice I imagine, anyway, when I read her descriptions of scenery, or Eleanor’s running commentary on the shortcomings of her new friends. “Droll” is the word, but with all the nuances that the term should convey but perhaps does not.

How droll. Indeed.

Jackson is also incredibly skilled at creating a compelling sense of place. Hill House, despite its bizarre architecture (described in beautifully Lovecraftian terms) and threatening supernatural phenomena, becomes a kind of homely counterpoint to the ugly little town of Hillsdale, six miles distant, through which Eleanor passes on her way to the mansion. In some ways, the world immediately outside Hill House is worse, more callous and impersonal, than the house itself.

I’ve been a huge fan of the film version, 1963’s The Haunting, since I watched it with Carlea several years ago. Much of the charm of the novel carries over into the film; but what the film does not convey quite as effectively is the quiet but deep insanity of the protagonist, Eleanor. She isn’t a psychopath, but her inner monologue reveals how fundamentally flawed her understanding of reality–specifically, social reality–is. The supernatural events in the novel–if that’s what they are–serve, more than anything, as a kind of literary dancing-partner with Eleanor’s growing insanity. There may be a ghost, or Hill House itself may be somehow sentient, or Eleanor could be causing the supernatural events herself (the other characters experience them as well, so not everything is in Eleanor’s head); but, for once, the ambiguity doesn’t matter. Or rather, it does matter; but it isn’t a smug, self-aware kind of ambiguity. The symbolism is not heavy handed; Jackson doesn’t delight in the open-endedness of the story.

No, I think Jackson mourned for Eleanor. The Haunting of Hill House is an elegy for the character that Jackson created to represent, I think, a kind of quiet, intimate tragedy. Eleanor, thirty-two years old, spent the last eleven years caring for her ailing mother, and as a result she is utterly unable to relate to other human beings. She opts instead for a house, and for the spirits that inhabit it. That’s what’s really scary here: the spooky manifestations, the implied threat (no one is ever killed, but there is an undeniable menace to the phenomena that occur), are bad enough; but this woman, ultimately, prefers them, and what they represent, to living human beings.

Hill House has its flaws. Toward the end of the book, the four main characters are joined by Montague’s wife and her assistant Arthur. Mrs. Montague and Arthur are, simply put, annoying. I understand why the filmmakers opted to change Mrs. Montague’s role so drastically, and drop Arthur completely, from the ’63 movie version.

Minor shortcomings aside, The Haunting of Hill House is brilliant. Whether it’s truly horror or not is, like so many such things, open to interpretation. But it is one of the best ghost stories I’ve ever read.

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[1] Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. Revised. New York; London: Penguin Classics, 2006.