This is one of those books which lives up to its reputation – it’s a long time since I’ve added a book to my ‘favourites’ list, but this one makes the grade. However, I do think it’s one of those books where you either ‘get it’, or you don’t. If you don’t, you won’t understand what all the fuss is about. I don’t get Red Dwarf, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Dr Who or Star Wars. Or ‘gaming’. Clearly, a lot of people ‘get’ what’s so all-fired wonderful about these things, but not me.
So, four people arrive in the allegedly haunted Hill House. The people themselves aren’t terribly unusual: the academic (Dr Montague), the playboy/cad (Luke), the arty/hippy young woman (Theodora), and the spinster (Eleanor). The story’s main character is Eleanor, and the bits told from a person’s point of view are told from hers.
This is not a book for people who like their horror with blood dripping down the walls and ghosts appearing and disappearing; it’s very low-key. This is psychological horror, and it’s written so that you can never be completely sure whether the manifestations described really happen, or whether it’s all in people’s heads. Although, as another writer has said, ‘Just because it’s happening in your head doesn’t mean it’s not real.’
Even without adding in Hill House itself, it’s an interesting portrait of a small group of people in an isolated location, and how they interact – and that seems to be a theme of Jackson’s: the unpleasantness that people can inflict on each other without the aid of the supernatural. I’ve read before about the tendency of groups to designate one member of the group as the ‘scapegoat’, to be the recipient of all the petty nastiness and bullying and ostracism that people get up to when there are more than two people together. This presumably aids group cohesion because everybody is united in making the scapegoat’s life a misery.
In Hill House Eleanor is the scapegoat: you watch as the group’s dynamics gradually change from a sort of comradeship on the first night, towards slowly separating into a trio and a single, as Eleanor is isolated and belittled by the others. Interestingly, although the group is supposed to be there to document supernatural occurrences, many of these are ignored or sidelined because they happen to Eleanor (who appears to be the member of the group the house is most interested in). Increasingly, towards the end of the book, the group’s scapegoating of Eleanor overshadows any ability of the others to recognise any kind of supernatural happening.
It has been said that lesbian sexuality is a theme of this book; personally, I don’t see it that way. Possibly the film contributed to this – I haven’t seen the film, but from what I hear, it ‘sexed up’ the book considerably. For example, in the film, Eleanor and Theodora end up in bed together (or so I’m told); that doesn’t happen in the book. They end up sleeping in the same room, in different beds. But I do think that a theme is ‘growing up’. Eleanor, it is made very clear, has had a very restricted life: a childhood with a mother who didn’t allow her daughters to ‘mix’ with the rest of the neighbourhood, then an adulthood looking after an extremely demanding invalid mother. Then, after her mother’s death, Eleanor moves in with her married sister, and is squashed and belittled there too. Eleanor has had no opportunity throughout her life to really grow into herself as a person: her trip to Hill House is the first time she hasn’t been with people who limit her completely. So, emotionally speaking, at the age of thirty-two, she’s still a child. Her relationship with Theodora seems to me like the relationship of a teenage girl: intense, and with, yes, some proto-sexual elements – as is pretty typical for teenage girl friendships.
Theodora, on the other hand, is an attention-seeking young woman who knows just how to wrap people around her little finger – and although she acts like a child, she’s playing a role for the attention it gets her. She’s emotionally mature enough to get tired of Eleanor quite quickly (especially when she realises that Eleanor doesn’t know how to give Theodora the attention Theodora wants) and move on to Luke. And yes, Theodora lives with a female friend – but this book was written in the 1950s: young women did not live alone. If they didn’t get married and didn’t want to live with their parents, they found a female friend to live with instead. Lesbianism was not required.
This emotional growth of Eleanor’s is another part of the story, I think. As Eleanor is the main character, the story follows her character arc (and, in fact, she is the only one that changes at all – the other characters and the house are left unaffected). At the beginning, she’s confined and limited by her life and the people around her: then she moves to Hill House and experiences freedom for the first time. She races through emotional growth, and then… what?
The final part of Eleanor’s story arc has a certain crushing inevitability to it. Eleanor has no husband, no children, and since the death of her mother, nobody to look after. Even the group at Hill House belittles and scorns her; not only is she the scapegoat, but this exclusion is underlined by the arrival of Dr Montague’s wife, and the pairing up of Luke and Theodora. Nobody wants Eleanor: as a woman with nobody to look after, she is the very epitome of the ‘superfluous female’.
And so the group’s final rejection of Eleanor – evicting her from Hill House and making her drive off alone, even though they know she has nowhere to go – results in her death, because that is the only possible ending, the only right ending, for a female who does not, or cannot, fulfil the caring role society demands of its females.