Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House creates a sense of atmosphere so thick that it isn’t hard to get lost in the corridors of its oppressive architecture. From its thick wooden doors, to its off angle structure, the lush imagery cannot help to capture any reader who dares to step across its threshold. The paragraphs sprawl along with the building to the point where the characters in the novel refer to the house using a formal name: Hill House.
This, along with the imagery, makes Hill House a character in the novel. It has goals, to consume, and dreams that come across as nightmares to both the characters and the reader. And why is this happening? So glad you asked.
Every good haunted house story needs a house that serves as an active antagonist for the story. In this one, the house is the one who shoves the plot forward, something I was glad to see since nobody else was doing anything. The characters, except for Eleanor Vance, simply react to its stage directions. Over the coming weeks there will be lots more post about hauntings, and I expect that this will, or should, be a recurring theme.
So what about the protagonist, Eleanor Vance?
Despite the fact that Eleanor is setup as a victim of circumstance, I find it odd that she’s the one making proactive decisions, especially in the beginning and toward the end. She is surrounded by larger than life personalities, Hill House not included, but her decision to carve out a life for herself in the beginning and her subsequent final decision to stay at Hill House endear her to the reader. We want, no… we need Eleanor to find a home. Jackson knows it. We know it. But Eleanor’s timid nature and an introverted personality that would put any writer to shame are at odds with most stories that often depend on an assertive lead to carry events forward.
Eleanor’s assertive nature is apparent, except during the middle. As soon as she steps across the threshold of Hill House her goal of getting there is met. She has arrived. Done. End of story, right? Not so fast. I think it’s fascinating that the house, for a time, becomes the lead character. It steals the story from Eleanor as she and the others become reactionary to the point that they are simply waiting for something to happen. It can’t get more passive than that folks.
As the novel progresses, Eleanor is turned into an active participant in events again. In the final chapters she’s the one who does the haunting. She pounds on doors, she scares her friends, she fulfills the role of Hill House thereby stealing the lead back. Of course, by the end her sanity, much like Hill House’s, is somewhat suspect. But she does have that clear goal that we all care about. She has found her home at least for a few moments. And even though the story ends with a frantic moment when Eleanor’s sanity comes back thereby making her a victim of the house and not a suicide, it’s safe to say that her trip to the tree can be seen as a victory.
Because in the end, Hill House walks alone. And what’s a haunted house without anyone to scare? What do call an unemployed writer? A writer. A house.