Having just reread The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (and having typed some parts of it in), I’m struck  by…I don’t know if I can sum this up well, but here goes:

Classic ghost stories are often about things that the characters (and perhaps the audience) absolutely, positively MUST NOT KNOW; if you confront them directly (as Hamlet and many of Poe’s narrators do), you will go mad. Well, unless it’s A Christmas Carol; Scrooge confronts his ghosts and actually takes advice from them, confronts what he must not know–and changes. Otherwise characters in a ghost story are pretty much screwed or get out by the skin of their teeth, as ignorant as they were before they went in.

Some examples:

  • The Turn of the Screw–children must not know about sex.
  • The Shining–rich people suck.
  • The Empty House (Blackwood)–servants are human and might not like us.
  • The Judge’s House (Stoker)–“justice” isn’t logical, but political.
  • Caterpillars (Benson)–cancer strikes by chance, not on “sinners” or for some other spiritually preventable reason.

The Haunting of Hill House seems to fit that pattern, but in a strange way.

–don’t read further if you don’t want spoilers–

First, the house itself isn’t haunted, but merely insane.  Second, Eleanor, or at least the part of her that was split off in childhood, is a poltergeist (at least, that’s how I take it).  So either there are two hauntings, or one, or none, depending on how you count it.

Eleanor is trapped in her awful, ugly life; she must not know that, or she’ll go mad (and does).  The house (and its attendants, even the town around it) comes across as both an unavoidably physical house (what descriptions, eh?) and as a metaphor for the claustrophobic society that Eleanor’s trapped in.

The first paragraph:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

The last paragraph:

Mrs. Sanderson was enormously relieved to hear that Dr. Montague and his party had left Hill House; she would have turned them out, she told the family lawyer, if Dr. Montague had shown any sign of wanting to stay. Theodora’s friend, mollified and contrite, was delighted to see Theodora back so soon; Luke took himself off to Paris, where his aunt fervently hoped he would stay for a while. Dr. Montague finally retired from active scholarly pursuits after the cool, almost contemptuous reception of his preliminary article analyzing the psychic phenomena of Hill House. Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

First paragraph starts with a dream; last paragraph starts with rules, order, too-solid reality.  The others, who have not really been touched by any kind of understanding of the house, escape blithely unscathed.  (Although Theodora, the psychic, might have understood how the trapped Eleanor was passively-aggressively lashing out at everyone around her via the poltergeist.)

So much for Eleanor.

I have to wonder how often the haunted house itself is the terrifying presence that must not be known or understood.  I can’t think of anything else at the moment–it’s always a ghost, the presence of someone or something that died, and not the house itself.  But I suppose if you want to criticize something as broad as “society,” then maybe something as impersonal as a house is necessary.