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?