The Haunting of Nothing Much

So following a review on-line a few months back, I finally sat down and read The Haunting of Hill House.

Given the number of jacket quotes assuring me that this was one of the scariest ghost stories ever written, I took the precaution of removing my pants to make clean-up easier in the event of mishap, settled in, and watched my desire to punch the heroine in the head grow with each passing hour.  I am sorry to say that as terrifying ghost stories go, this one may have passed the sell-by date.

There were some scary bits, but it felt a bit like a Blair Witch Project of a book–“I am willing to be terrified. Okay, that’s scary. Okay, that’s…bullshit, actually. Okay, I want every person in this to die…and now it’s over. Hmm. I wonder if I can get my money back?”

The writing was good, don’t get me wrong, it was moody and at times even elegant, the first and last paragraph are lovely. But that didn’t get me over the fact that I came to loathe the heroine very quickly. I was sympathetic for the first couple of chapters and I respect everybody’s right to be horribly damaged and all, but my whiny/clingy/self-centered-o-meter rapidly buried the needle. I will give Shirley Jackson abundant credit for expressing so well the kind of fragile wide-eyed crazy that makes the air around someone vibrate and makes you move without a forwarding address to stop them from showing up on your doorstep at 3 AM, but that doesn’t mean that I am going to care if a haunted house eats said crazy person’s soul. If anything, I will hope for it to happen faster, just to get it over with. And even having apparently been eaten by a haunted house, the heroine was still marvelously ineffective and useless and prone to irrational conversation.

The conversation was also aggravating. How to explain? It doesn’t matter how well you write dialog if the dialog is nonsensical. These people have long conversations, which are sometimes witty and delightful but often baffling and useless. Perhaps there is some deep overarching meaning that I am not picking up on, but many of the arguments come wildly out of left-field, and people get very angry over nothing that I can really determine. They say things that I cannot imagine saying under the circumstances, that do not seem to follow logically from anything said before and their emotions seem to have no bearing on what is going on.

It is possible that this was an expression of The House Getting To Them, but what it came across for me was “My goodness, what horrible, stupid, and catty people. If I met people like you in real life, I would never want to hang out with them.” (Theodora did come close to saying something along the lines of “My, what an insipid little shit you are,” which I applauded, but even her emotional responses were still weird and didn’t seem to follow logically from anything.)

Now, this may again go back to the Blair Witch problem, which is that people are acting irrationally and occasionally stupidly, and nothing is guaranteed to make me want to kill you more than being stupid. It’s a recurring problem of ghost stories, sad to say–people act dumb.

So the house wants to keep shutting doors and you can’t prop them open. Don’t try ONCE, and then find them unpropped and say “Well, it must be the housekeeper,” and never try again. This sort of behavior does not endear you to the reader. It makes the reader jump and down and yell and eventually put on their pants in rage.

(Tangentially, a movie that did some bits exactly right was Poltergeist. Specifically the scene where the chairs in the kitchen are behaving strangely, and the mother starts moving them around trying to see what will happen. That I understood. I would absolutely have done that, too. Other bits of the movie veer between terrifying and corny, but if the house is ever haunted, you will come over and find me stacking chairs with exactly that expression of alarmed curiosity.)

So…yeah, no. Didn’t work for me at all. The Red Tree, which I picked up on the strength of the same review, was wonderful and terrifying and I loved it, and it had a very damaged heroine too, but not one that I wanted to drop-kick out a plate glass window. So it can definitely be done. And I didn’t mind the lack of detailed explanation for Why The House Was Bad–honestly, I was fine with what I got there. I’d say it was a great set-up that ended too soon, except that if I had to spend another five minutes in Eleanor’s head, I would have given up to go play Minecraft, so going longer would not have fixed matters.

So…yeah. I have no idea why this one went down in the canon of great horror stories. If somebody’s got an explanation, feel free (and I will accept “You are too dense to appreciate the fine nuance of Eleanor’s suffering” as a valid explanation!) Why does this scare people? Why did it ever scare people? Was our threshold of terror really that much lower in the Sixties? What gives?

  • reply twistedchick ,

    Yeah, thresholds were different in the 60s; things in movies and books were more implied than portrayed. But the Jackson book that always did it for me (as a late teen, which is when I read her) was ‘We Have Always Lived In The Castle’, which was the first truly unreliable narrator story I’d read.

    • reply Chris S ,

      THANK YOU! THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU. I thought there was something wrong with me.
      I thought maybe I just didn’t get it, I thought…ARGH.
      I mean…this is Shirley “The Lottery” Jackson and I just got to the end and went “well…okay…but….huh.”

      I feel SO MUCH BETTER now.

      Disclaimer: I read this after the movie with the thought “well that sucked. I’m sure the book is much better”
      At least the movie had Catherine Zeta Jones.

      • reply Chris S ,

        also, I feel similarly about Turn of the Screw from a “why is this considered scary?” perspective.

        • reply Al the K ,

          History repeats!

          The recent movie “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” has similar failings. Yep, early on, I did want everyone there deservedly killed off for being so utterly stupid and oddly motivated. Cool atmospheric scenery, FX and small story touches didn’t make up for the dumbness. And you writers and directors out there, obligatory relentless physical torture is gross and numbing, not horrifying. Plus, with a book, at least you don’t get obvious dun-dun-DUNNN!!!! music cues to punctuate scary bits.

          Wanting to like the protagonist seems to be a key requirement for a lot of people. In the uncommon instance where events move the characters, and the whole idea is about shades of gray, the story will still work for me.

          IMO it is the quality of writing that informs the critics, story be damned. Huh, go figure. We can’t have both? Chris S mentioned about all the horror stories (both of them) that are regarded as “real” literature, fit to be taught in school.

          • reply Chris S ,

            I think “like” the protagonist isn’t so much the case as empathize, identify with, or understand.

            I don’t have to LIKE you to not want to watch you be torn apart by creepy little creatures. I just have to recognize your basic humanity and think you’re a decent human being who isn’t too stupid to be allowed to live.

            • reply Chelsea ,

              See, I agree with every single thing in this post … except that my total loathful hatred of Eleanor is what makes the book work as an elegantly scary story for me. I lost all empathy for her in the “cup of stars” scene, so I was subsequently so undistracted by her as a lens to view the story that the psychological machinations came a lot more creepily clear.

              • reply Joyce ,

                The Haunting of Hill House movie scared me when I was 6, probably because the people were so weird-acting. The book and Turn of the Screw never did. Stupid protagonists always bother me, which is why I didn’t like Cloverfield either.

                A movie I saw recently that also had the reputation of being very scary when I was young: Don’t Look Now; was also incredibly boring because I didn’t care about any of the characters and the plot was dumb.

                The original Thing is great because when they open the door and the thing is there, they slam the door shut! No backing up screaming with the door wide open.

                • reply Hawk ,

                  Haunted house stories mostly leave me cold; I haven’t read that book and I think I’m glad. I did read The Lottery, in school, and you know what? I thought those people were effin’ retarded. (I was also a snotty teenager, and no one else’s problems were as monumental as mine.)

                  I haven’t read the book yet, but I did see the film version of Rose Red – and granted, it’s Stephen King, whom you may or may not like, but oh my gosh I about pee’d myself a couple times during that! Scariest house ever. Though still, the main female character – the “scientist” as she called herself – was someone I was not at all sad to see get hurt. Then again, Mr. King tends to make his horror not only the icky monsters and weird events, but the truly horrible people in his stories; the scariest thing about Rose Red is that damn woman, because of what you learn about her as the story progresses.

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