Welcome back to Reading the Weird, in which we get girl cooties all over weird fiction, cosmic horror, and Lovecraftiana—from its historical roots through its most recent branches.
This week, we continue with Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, first published in 1959. Today we’re covering Chapter 1, Parts 3-5. Spoilers ahead.
“Sometimes the people who knock you down never turn once to look.”
Eleanor Vance wants to drive to Hill House in the car she and her sister co-own, and why shouldn’t she, since Carrie and her husband and daughter will be vacationing in the mountains all summer? Carrie nixes the idea. Eleanor hasn’t seen fit to share her exact destination, and their mother would never have approved of letting Eleanor run so wild.
Eleanor’s no thief, but there’s a first time for everything. Early in the morning she takes a cab to the downtown garage where the car resides. Anxious to escape before her villainy is suspected, she glances nervously up and down the street—and crashes into a little old lady, knocking bags to the sidewalk. One breaks, spilling bits of food. The lady screams in Eleanor’s face, but backs off when Eleanor offers to pay: it’s all leftovers from some function. Instead, Eleanor covers the lady’s cab home; she wishes Eleanor good luck and says she’ll pray for her. Well, Eleanor thinks, that’s one person anyway.
Car gained, luggage stowed, Eleanor drives off into the first “genuinely shining day of summer.” Dr. Montague’s careful directions lie beside her: Route 39 to Ashton, then Route 5 west to the village of Hillsdale, turn left at the corner with a gas station and a church, then six miles up a very poor country road. Don’t ask for directions in Hillsdale, as the villagers are openly hostile to anyone inquiring about Hill House.
Eleanor means to “savor each turn of her traveling.” She teases herself that she might stop anywhere and stay forever—or perhaps just go to Hill House, where she’s expected. Following the “magic thread” of Route 39, Eleanor imagines time itself gone strange: within a few seconds of passing a place, she may have lived a lifetime there. A grand house with pillared porch and stone lions becomes her home, where a little old lady tends her and the townspeople bow to her as mistress of the lions. Passing tattered fairground signs, she reads the words DARE and EVIL, then laughs to realize they’re no omen, only DAREDEVIL missing the middle D. A square of oleander trees becomes the poisonous border of a hidden fairyland. Entering, Eleanor will break the spell and reveal herself as the lost princess. The queen will cry for the servants to prepare a great feast, and they will live happily ever after. No wait, add that everywhere outside the oleanders will also become fairyland, and a prince will come riding.
Eleanor bids the magic oleanders goodbye—another day she’ll return and break their spell.
She stops at a country restaurant and lingers over her lunch. The only other diners are a family whose little daughter is refusing to drink her milk. Her mother explains to the waitress that she wants her “cup of stars”—a cup with stars painted on the bottom that she always drinks from at home. Delighted, Eleanor silently urges her not to give in, for once “they have trapped you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again.” The little girl seems to “hear” her and holds firm. Brave girl, Eleanor thinks, and wise. A fragment of remembered song pricks her onward: “In delay there lies no plenty.”
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Outside Ashton, Eleanor nearly stops forever at a tiny blue-doored cottage with “perfectly, a white cat on the step.” She imagines living there alone, a benevolent witch who tells fortunes and brews love potions.
In Hillsdale, loathe to end her trip, she stops at a dingy diner. There she obliquely questions the waitress about old houses in the hills nearby, that city people might want to fix up. The girl keeps saying “Not here they don’t.” The lone customer adds that people leave Hillsdale, they don’t come to it. As Eleanor exits, the waitress hopes she’ll find her house.
Six miles up the bone-rattling road, Eleanor arrives at the padlocked gates of Hill House. She honks. The man who responds is surly, reluctant to admit her. Or is she being given a last chance to run? Instead she furiously snaps that she’s expected: “Unlock those gates at once.”
The man obeys, saying Eleanor will be sorry he did. And yes, he’s Dudley, the caretaker Montague mentioned—does she think anyone but he and his wife would stay around Hill House? During the day, that is—he doesn’t hang around after dark.
Eleanor drives on, humming to prove herself unafraid. It’s the same tune she hummed earlier, with the added line “Present mirth hath present laughter.” Over the trees, she spots roofs, perhaps a tower, and daydreams about handsome hill-smugglers. Then the drive straightens, leaving her face to face with Hill House. Braking the car, she sits staring.
She thinks: Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.
This week’s reading could have been summarized as “Then Eleanor took the car she shared with her sister and drove to Hill House, following Montague’s directions carefully.” In much the same way, sure, as stretches of the Lord of the Rings trilogy can be summarized as “Then they just walked into Mordor.” Sometimes you need to follow the journey step by step: what people experience on the way, how it changes them, the contrasts between Point A and Point B and all points in between.
For Eleanor Point A is her stifling, controlling family. Her sister and brother-in-law resent her making an independent choice, and couldn’t possibly let her do anything as rash as take the car (that she co-owns, that they aren’t using) to make her trip easier. And Eleanor—who has until this point in her life been meek, obedient, and dutiful—steals (half-steals) the car and drives off into adventure.
On the road, she displays the mind-life that has gotten her this far with spirit intact. Every intriguing house or field sets her off on an imagined life better than her own. And each one, pointedly, is an opportunity to avoid the horror story lurking ahead, and claim a different adventure: “She might take it into her head to stop just anywhere and never leave again.” Other lives, other books—all with their own gifts of dignity, of respect and love and happy usefulness. Any one of them would be a kinder genre.
Eleanor alternates between stories of self-sufficiency and stories that at least hint at romance. While the prince-come-riding and the devilishly handsome smuggler are relatively traditional daydreams, it feels to me like her heart lies with the more self-sufficient lives. They’re far more detailed, full of cozy meals and satisfying work. In the lion-gated house, she could pass her time painstakingly maintaining the statues, then relaxing with tea brought by a single servant. Neighbors, equally delighted by the lions, would bow to her as their caretaker. (Imagine, getting respect for caretaking. Imagine caring for something that never offers insult or complaint.) In the tiny cottage at the foot of a garden, she might become a village witch telling fortunes and brewing potions, hidden from the world whenever she chooses by magic oleanders.
And then she stops for lunch, and really does take peace in her “joyful loneliness.” There’s a kid throwing a tantrum, but she isn’t upset by the show of temper—rather, she’s quick to identify with the child. Much as I personally and practically sympathize with the parents, I can’t blame Eleanor—who has much experience with surrendering to expectation—for silently urging the kid to keep demanding the extraordinary.
(You occasionally hear about the stigma of eating alone, something I’ve never understood. I’m far luckier in my family than Eleanor, but like her I associate solitary lunches with freedom and relaxation—a few minutes of leisure in the liminal space between obligations—and have ever since I was old enough to spend my allowance on a sandwich without adult supervision.)
It makes for a perfectly horrible contrast with Hillsdale, which stimulates only the most cursory fantasies of slipping into a new life. It’s a dreamless, gray, glaring place where imagination suggests only poisoned coffee. Stifling authority starts to creep back in, as Eleanor worries about the fine line between simply ignoring advice, and being disobedient to Montague’s authority.
Then imagination rears up one more time with a story-seed of towers and devilishly handsome smugglers—only to crash and fall to tatters against Hill House itself. Because Hill House… exists under conditions of absolute reality, right. And we’ve just had several pages’ taste of the alternative: the freedom and joy provided by being able to imagine something better.
But now we’ve made the journey from the stifling ordinary to the stifling whatever-Hill-House-is. And because we’ve made the journey along with Eleanor, we know precisely what’s been found, and lost, in the process.
This week’s metrics:
Weirdbuilding: Unwelcoming Hillsdale, and unwelcoming caretaker Dudley, seem to at least echo the horror trope of the Creepy Town With Suspiciously Suspicious Inhabitants. In this case, my suspicion is that the town is not so much part of the trap as the result of occult run-off from the house itself—“there’s not even a movie” certainly suggests an excess of poisonous reality, occluding even the most pre-packaged sort of mental escape.
Dudley, on the other hand, is more of a mystery. Does the house want to be alone, or does he provide a sort of filter for prey who’ll fight back? Or is his attempt at warning Eleanor off genuine, undermined by him being the sort of person who ends up with this sort of job in the first place?
Libronomicon: The lines Eleanor keeps humming come from a Fool’s song in Twelfth Night. Somehow, much as I’m keeping my slash goggles on for Theo/Eleanor, I doubt this journey is going to end in lovers meeting. “What’s to come is still unsure,” on the other hand…
Say Shirley Jackson had needed to cut a thousand words from Hill House. A helpful editor might have suggested she whittle down the second half of Chapter One. Shirley, must we follow Eleanor’s uneventful trip every mile of the way, complete with endless internal monologuing? That bit about whether Carrie will let Eleanor take the car is larded with circular dialogue; all you need is one sentence: “Eleanor’s sister Carrie didn’t want her to drive their shared car to Hill House, but Eleanor took it anyway.” Dump the collision with the little lady altogether—what’s it got to do with anything?
Next, maybe condense the trip itself to a couple paragraphs. Even arguing it serves to define Eleanor’s character, define her character later. The reader just wants to get to Hill House. Yeah, summarize the drive, pick up with the jarring ride to the gates, or better yet, the arrival at the gates, with Dudley.
Doesn’t that sound like a plan, Shirl?
Helpful Editor, sorry, you’re inexcusably tone-deaf. Eleanor is both the focus of Hill House the novel and of Hill House the place, or entity. The thumbnail sketch of her in Chapter One, Part One, won’t suffice. Nor should we wait for her to get to Hill House to flesh out her background and personality. We need to get acquainted with Eleanor as she is before she starts interacting with the other characters and the House; we need a more comprehensive understanding of what might change in her, or perhaps more ominously, what might not change.
Part One told us that Eleanor’s not happy living with sister Carrie and family, that she’d go anywhere else. Now, in one scene, Jackson shows us why Eleanor’s so desperate. It’s a compact scene, too, all dialogue except for minimal descriptions of Carrie smiling slightly or delicately addressing her teacup instead of looking Eleanor in the eye. The only time Jackson dips into any character’s head is when Carrie’s husband is struck by a sudden idea Eleanor might damage the car.
That’s right, not an iota here of what Eleanor’s thinking, how she’s feeling. Jackson trusts the reader to imagine Eleanor’s growing frustration and to wince, as with her, at Carrie’s truly nasty allusions to their late mother’s lack of reliance on Eleanor’s sense and moral sensibility, and to her own disdain for a sister who’d rush off at a strange man’s bidding. Eleanor’s brother-in-law is only less obnoxious in that he’s clearly under Carrie’s thumb as well. Jackson even uses him as the comic relief with his repeated frets about what if poor little Linnie gets sick in the doctorless mountains, or what if Carrie gets sick, or what if even he gets sick?
Now, what about that very little lady outside the garage? Is she there merely to ramp up suspense by delaying Eleanor? I think she acts more as a nagging echo of Eleanor’s mother. For a stranger, Little Lady berates Eleanor with surprising harshness and surprisingly acute little jabs: First she vehemently curses Eleanor, then she keeps alluding to Eleanor’s clumsiness, even as she wishes her good luck. She takes the precaution of not letting Eleanor hear the address she gives the cabdriver. She tells Eleanor she’ll be praying for her, which begs the question of why Eleanor needs praying for.
Significantly, as she’s glad to go anywhere, Eleanor’s glad to have anyone pray for her.
Finally on her road, Eleanor behaves less like a goal-oriented traveler than like a recently freed prisoner. We feel her former isolation in her rapt attention to everything she passes. We smile but also ache at her quickness to see potential homes. First is the manor-house with the lions, in which an old lady takes care of Eleanor, not vice versa, and of which she’s the respected doyenne. Next is the oleander-square, about which Eleanor spins an elaborate fantasy: It’s the protective boundary of a magical realm where Eleanor is a princess at whose homecoming the queen-mother rejoices. Plus there’s a prince on the hilly horizon. Last is the blue-doored cottage, in which Eleanor lives as village wisewoman, telling fortunes and aiding sad maidens.
At the country restaurant, Eleanor imaginatively devours not a place but a family, in which Mother is tender and understanding, Daughter brave and wise and owner of a cup-of-stars. Hillsdale proves nowhere to linger, but at least Eleanor wheedles a hope she’ll find her house out of the waitress whose beau she drives away.
The rocky road to Hill House raises doubts in Eleanor, ditto the padlock-and-ogre guarded gates. Still, Heaven’s not supposed to be easily accessed. Eleanor drives the last stretch to Hill House remembering more of her earworm-song, but what’s the line that makes her fear it’s a disreputable tune regarding her destination?
The song is Shakespeare’s “O Mistress mine where are you roaming?” from Twelfth Night. Can the disreputable line be: “Journeys end in lovers meeting”?
Eleanor’s daydream of handsome smugglers is dashed by her first glimpse of Hill House, no Heaven, no lovers’ rendezvous, but a spot vile and diseased, to be instantly fled!
Next week, we put our first, belated checkmark under Australian Authors with Kaaron Warren’s “The Diesel Pool.” You can find it in Cthulhu Deep Down Under, Volume 1, edited by Steve Proposch, Christopher Sequiera, and Bryce Stevens.
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is now available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, weird and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.