Misreadings: Jonathan Ball on Shirley Jackson

2a7781b0c8a01cacb323d110.LMisreadings: Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House
by Jonathan Ball

Misreadings imagines alternative (or détourned) versions of literary and film works, and subjects these nonexistent imaginings to analysis.

Let’s imagine that Shirley Jackson’s horror classic The Haunting of Hill House is a metafiction, that it tips its hand in its first paragraph, and that the haunting of Hill House is effectively a metaphor for how this monstrous book ensnares its readers.

What accounts for so much of the disquieting effect of Jackson’s novel is the narrative voice established in the opening paragraph. Jackson begins her novel with a strange metaphysical claim:

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.

Let’s clarify the narrative situation while noting the sheer density of the information relayed here. A third-person, authorial narrator (one outside of the story’s diegesis or story-world, and retrospective to its action, looking back on the events of the novel with hindsight and thus foreknowledge denied to the characters within the diegesis) tells us that Hill House is not sane (thus, somehow alive) because it does not dream.

Hill House does not dream because it is a site of absolute reality. When Eleanor enters Hill House and her rapid decline, losing her sense of self, becoming more and more the puppet of this house and whatever walks therein, it is because her mental instability, already apparent in her complex fantasizing prior to arriving at the house, puts her “closer to” contact with whatever horror constitutes reality. Due to her lack of a firm social and even personal identity, Eleanor draws into the house’s insanity faster than the other characters (who do not seem aware that, by virtue of dying and putting an end to their little experiment, Eleanor has frightened them away from the house and saved their minds and lives as a result).

What disturbs in this narration are the words “might” and “whatever.” Hill House “might” stand for eighty more years, and “whatever” walks there walks alone…. Well, will it stand for eighty more years or not? What walks there? The narrator has been established as omniscient outside of these uncertainties. The narrator knows that Hill House does not dream, that it has a mind that is not sane, that it is a site of absolute reality. The narrator, because authorial and narrating retrospective to the action, knows what characters in the story are thinking and what will occur. The narrator does not, however, know the future or the nature of Hill House.

In other words, we have the classic setup of a detached, authorial, omniscient narrator — except that the narrator is deficient in one area: precise knowledge of Hill House. All that the narrator knows about Hill House is the information reported in this first paragraph. The book even ends with an almost-identical repetition of the same paragraph, as if to emphasize that, despite having recounted the events of this “haunting,” the otherwise all-knowing narrator knows nothing more about Hill House (this also accounts for the ambiguity of the novel’s events, despite the fact that it is narrated in omniscient third-person).

At the novel’s end, when Eleanor commits suicide by crashing her car in a desperate attempt to stay in/near the house (when finally evicted/rejected by the social microcosm of the ghost hunters), the narrator announces that

With what she perceived as quick cleverness she pressed her foot down hard on the accelerator; they can’t run fast enough to catch me this time, she thought, but by now they must be beginning to realize; I wonder who notices first? I can hear them calling now, she thought, and the little footsteps running through Hill House and the soft sound of the hills pressing closer. I am really doing it, she thought, turning the wheel to send the car directly at the great tree at the curve of the driveway, I am really doing it, I am doing this all by myself, now, at last; this is me, I am really really really doing it by myself.

In the unending, crashing second before the car hurled into the tree she thought clearly, Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Why don’t they stop me?

Not only does the narrator know Eleanor’s thoughts, the narrator knows how she perceives her own thoughts (as possessing “quick cleverness”) and how she perceives herself from the outside, through the perception of others, which one of them she thinks “sees” her the best in this moment (Luke), and how she feels at one with Hill House (as if sharing a nervous system — she feels “the little footsteps running through Hill House” as if they tapped over her skin).

What the narrator doesn’t know is the source of these footsteps: are they the footsteps of Eleanor’s observers, running to stop her, or the footsteps of “whatever” walks alone? The narrator does not know the same thing Eleanor doesn’t know: Why she is doing this, whether she really is doing this “all by herself” or remains the puppet of Hill House.

The fact that the narrator is all-knowing, in the classical manner of narrators, except when it comes to Hill House, suggests that, in addition to being a site of “absolute reality” (perhaps as a result of its “reality”), Hill House exceeds the narrative situation and thus narrative limits. This destabilizes the narrator’s position: is this really an “authorial” narrator, in any still-meaningful sense, or has Hill House somehow also exceeded authorship?

The resulting creepiness, the disquieting effect of the story’s ambiguity, thus bleeds easily into a misreading that imagines the novel as a metafiction in which another narrative level, a second diegesis, surrounds the first, and the narrator of The Haunting of Hill House has her own life as a character, and like some ancient mariner is telling the story to us (we are in the novel now also) in an attempt to understand, to come to terms with, this unknown “whatever” that both walks in and is Hill House. An author haunted by the story she’s written, which has its own life now — one that exceeds her own, that may even mean her death.

Since Hill House exceeds this telling, its “haunting” is also the haunting of the reader. For if Hill House exceeds the narrative, as suggested by the limitations of its telling, then in fact it is the most real thing in all of these narrative worlds (truly a site of absolute reality, the only thing, including the narrator, that exceeds the story’s situation, its limits).

As such, Hill House is more real than our world, despite (or perhaps due to) its status as a fictional creation.

And we wander through its halls in endless torment, dreamless ghosts.


Dr. Jonathan Ball is the author of Ex Machina (BookThug, 2009), Clockfire (Coach House Books, 2010), and The Politics of Knives (Coach House Books, 2012). Visit him online at www.jonathanball.com or @jonathanballcom. Misreadings will be a regular feature on Lemon Hound.

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