To those who don’t follow along on Instagram and have been wondering where I’ve been, I will quickly catch you up.
So far this year, I have:
danced with Lolly and the devil,
escaped the lab with Algernon,
picnicked at Hanging Rock,
witnessed Bloody torture in unending Chambers,
followed Snowman seeking Crake across a desolate wasteland,
heard the Crawdads Sing,
felt the Ice draw closer,
and the High-Rise loom higher.
For three months of mostly locked down living and a Year of anything but Rest and Relaxation, I am delighted by my [incomplete] list of adventures thus far.
One adventure, unlisted, we embarked upon together.
In celebration of Women in Horror month, February saw a brief (did I mention that posts have been limited this academic year due to pursuits of an enduringly academic nature?) exploration of the Gothic Psyche with a female focus. When my Spooky Nerds Book Club co-hosts (Rabbit Hearted Reader, Engaging Lit) and I were discussing our next communal read, there could be no other.
Emboldened by the company of the wider #thespookynerdsbookclub, in February, we thus [re]opened the doors to Shirley Jackson’s Hill House (as if you could keep me away). Today, I will take you on a brief tour of the Gothic Psyche; of madness and mother; of a house that dreams; a house of nightmares.
“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.”
“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.”Opening paragraph, ‘The Haunting of Hill House’, Shirley Jackson
Hill House, not sane, is a horrific entity. The house is first and foremost; our titular character; eponymous and looming. She (yes, she) stands in unsightly, uninviting contrast to the cottages Eleanor ‘Nell’ Vance – our main, human character – dreams herself into whilst journeying towards Hill House. Here there are no stone lions, no ornamental oleander – symbols of power and poison protecting Eleanor’s dream home from attainability. Hill House, instead, is uncomfortable and unadorned. Its doors are heavy. Once you are within, or without, capriciously they slam shut.
Built with the fingerprints of Shakespeare, Poe, Gaskell, and Dickens in its foundations, there is inspiration and ambiguity at every architectural turn. If the house is protagonist, is Eleanor, then, antagonist? Is it her presence that causes horror here to manifest? Or is she a Shakespearean heroine embodying tragedy? The ultimate victim – a blameless plaything of mindless malevolence?
The house, as haunted ones are wont to be, is personified as evil, diseased, uninvit[ing/ed] – exciting but nothing unexpected for the genre. Where my interest is piqued is in the architectural impossibilities. For a genre built on buildings, lavish and extreme, this structural unsettling is particularly appealing. The concept of home as refuge is unsettled; the uncanny slips in…
It is here, in the uncanny, that the Generally Gothic theme of February comes into focus. ‘Gothic Psyche‘; or, the idea of house as metaphor for mind. A house that is “evil” and “haunted”; a house built within an endless loop; rooms with “no windows, no access to the outdoors at all…” A suffocating, inescapable, disorientating interior – no escape; neither literal nor metaphorical doors connecting to the external world. The centre of Hill House as a labyrinthine nightmare, coiling in on its unending self.
It is so deliciously, psychoanalytically, domestically gothic. The dishes, my dears, belong on the shelves…
“𝕿𝖍𝖊 𝖍𝖔𝖚𝖘𝖊 𝖜𝖆𝖘 𝖛𝖎𝖑𝖊. 𝕾𝖍𝖊 𝖘𝖍𝖎𝖛𝖊𝖗𝖊𝖉 𝖆𝖓𝖉 𝖙𝖍𝖔𝖚𝖌𝖍𝖙, 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝖜𝖔𝖗𝖉𝖘 𝖈𝖔𝖒𝖎𝖓𝖌 𝖋𝖗𝖊𝖊𝖑𝖞 𝖎𝖓𝖙𝖔 𝖍𝖊𝖗 𝖒𝖎𝖓𝖉, 𝕳𝖎𝖑𝖑 𝕳𝖔𝖚𝖘𝖊 𝖎𝖘 𝖛𝖎𝖑𝖊, 𝖎𝖙 𝖎𝖘 𝖉𝖎𝖘𝖊𝖆𝖘𝖊𝖉; 𝖌𝖊𝖙 𝖆𝖜𝖆𝖞 𝖋𝖗𝖔𝖒 𝖍𝖊𝖗𝖊 𝖆𝖙 𝖔𝖓𝖈𝖊.”
Throughout this reading (my first having been on audiobook, which I cannot recommend highly enough, a few years ago), Bachelard’s theories of physical space floated to the forefront of my mind.
“[W]e shall see,” he writes, “the imagination build ‘walls’ of impalpable shadows, comfort itself with the illusion of protection — or, just the contrary, tremble behind thick walls, mistrust the staunchest ramparts.”
A house, in literary terms, is rarely just a house; in the gothic, it is often Freudian: the mind. Filled with echoes of past traumas, the house may reflect the human or embody the intangible. Hill House specifically may be many things – you may read refuge, family, lover. Each are absent from Nell’s life; it’s no coincidence that she creates a fiction at her journey’s start, imagining herself in a row of already occupied houses as she drives by. She is simply seeking home – a space for herself.
Nell, unsettled, suffers temporary inhabitancy in the permanence of others – as guest or carer, with purpose, without ownership. Fractious female relationships fill all these spaces. “Fear and guilt are sisters”, Jackson tells us — sisters as amicable as Eleanor and Carrie driven apart by a part-owned car; as the old Crain sisters destroyed by dishes; as Nell and Theo, one red, one yellow; as Eleanor and her mother…
“𝕴 𝖆𝖒 𝖑𝖎𝖐𝖊 𝖆 𝖘𝖒𝖆𝖑𝖑 𝖈𝖗𝖊𝖆𝖙𝖚𝖗𝖊 𝖘𝖜𝖆𝖑𝖑𝖔𝖜𝖊𝖉 𝖜𝖍𝖔𝖑𝖊 𝖇𝖞 𝖆 𝖒𝖔𝖓𝖘𝖙𝖊𝖗, 𝖘𝖍𝖊 𝖙𝖍𝖔𝖚𝖌𝖍𝖙, 𝖆𝖓𝖉 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝖒𝖔𝖓𝖘𝖙𝖊𝖗 𝖋𝖊𝖊𝖑𝖘 𝖒𝖞 𝖙𝖎𝖓𝖞 𝖑𝖎𝖙𝖙𝖑𝖊 𝖒𝖔𝖛𝖊𝖒𝖊𝖓𝖙𝖘 𝖎𝖓𝖘𝖎𝖉𝖊.”
On this reading, I heard, most loudly, house as mother – a concept Jackson explicitly explores in chapter 8.3. It is her mother’s death that propels Nell, homeless, toward Hill House. The absence of her mother – for whom she cared, for whom she lived, whom she hated, and by whom she felt hated in return – fills Hill House. It decorates, boldly, with resentment and guilt. For Nell, the house manifests in mind as mother. It decorates, boldly, in horror and blood. It communicates, at first, banging through walls – just as mother did… It protects and harms, enveloping her in powerful arms. It is, as Books From Fangorn astutely observed during book club discussion, womblike – Nell, in utero, is unformed, dependent, imprisoned within bloody, red walls. And, like a monstrous mother’s womb, it is here that she grows into herself – a paranoid, fearful self. It is here that she determines her fate: if not Hill House, then not anywhere.
“𝕬𝖓 𝖊𝖓𝖙𝖎𝖗𝖊 𝖕𝖆𝖘𝖙 𝖈𝖔𝖒𝖊𝖘 𝖙𝖔 𝖉𝖜𝖊𝖑𝖑 𝖎𝖓 𝖆 𝖓𝖊𝖜 𝖍𝖔𝖚𝖘𝖊.” – 𝕭𝖆𝖈𝖍𝖊𝖑𝖆𝖗𝖉
“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.”Closing paragraph, ‘The Haunting of Hill House’, Shirley Jackson.
What, if anything, do you think Hill House represents? Share your thoughts and theories with me below.
This blog post was fuelled by candles burnt at both ends and a house mutating in shadows. If you have enjoyed it, please consider making a small contribution so that I need not be plunged into darkness.
The next Spooky Nerds Book Club read will be announced soon; follow along on IG or twitter to keep up to [frequently belated] date.
Submissions are open – if you have creative or critical writing or artistic expression in any blog-compatible mode that you’d like to see here, get in touch. If you’d like to collab., or have an exciting new endeavour in need of review, I am similarly all ears/eyes/fangs.
In the meantime, dive deeper into the gothic psyche, with:
An Unutterable Wretchedness of the Mind: ‘Jane Eyre’,
Everything was Brightness, or Dark: ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, and
A Dream Dreaming Itself: ‘Hiraeth’ Author Interview.