The opening lines of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House make a jarring assertion about madness. “No living organism,” she writes, “can continue to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality. Even larks and katydids are assumed, by some, to dream.” Strange conceit for a gothic romance, one would think. Aren’t the unquiet dead traditionally ignis fatuus– avatars of unreason? How does a haunted mansion become reality’s cold, unblinking lighthouse and a shiftless dreamer the paragon of sanity?
Indeed, while Eleanor Vance’s capacity for delusion exposes her to the corrosive influence of Hill House, it isn’t for the reasons tradition hastens us to assume. Eleanor dreams too much. Hill House, “not sane,” dreams little. This opposition binds them beyond ordinary sympathy, pitting the baroque inner life of a frail, emotionally stunted woman against the bleak lucidity of a spiritual vortex.
Before Henry James –whose impact on Jackson is palpable – ghostly phenomenon, at least for the purposes of fiction, didn’t so much negate the narrator’s view of the world as expandit, albeit with the attendant vertigo one would expect upon discovering an empty room filled with presences unseen. The gloomy specters of M.R. James (no relation to Henry, alas), essentially admonish readers to be careful what they wish for. His meddlesome narrators poke around past what is proper and are taught a harsh lesson about the price of curiosity, but one more or less apropos to their worldview. It’s never the protagonist’s grip on reality under fire, per se. The grip is firm – firmer than he knows, in fact – it simply comes up holding more than we bargained for.
With The Turn of the Screw, which I’ll talk about at length elsewhere, James the younger formulates a twofold injunction: apparitions, vividly menacing though they are, may well be products of our overfed imaginations, yes – but if so, what can’tthat be said of? This constitutes a challenge to reason whose stakes, for a sane mind, are unthinkable. Shirley Jackson goes one better.
“Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House,” she writes. “And whatever walked there, walked alone.” Absolute reality is, she implies, a restless pact with solitude. Society, on principle, is loath to indulge those whose flights of fancy soar at right angles to its own. Likewise it rejects those incapable of dreaming. The social contract demands compromise: neither too much fantasy nor too much reality – a middle road adumbrated by the need to coexist, from which lost souls like Eleanor and Hill House remain forever afield.
Lured from an unhappy home life by the promise of figuring vitally in Dr. John Montague’s paranormal research, Eleanor builds castles in the air even before reaching Hill House, extrapolating from simple everyday details en route a wilderness of fantasy from which she seems unable to extricate herself. She can’t resist invention when speaking to another human being. Hill House gradually forces Eleanor to follow her quixotic, overdeveloped yet poorly understood inner life to its natural conclusion. Her unconscious solipsism becomes the house’s sinister focus. One by one, uncanny things unfold around Eleanor to erode her defenses against the paralyzing affects of too much reality. The world doesn’t expand, it contracts: not vertigo, but a throttling claustrophobia sets in. Her troubled psyche projects nightmares onto the imposing, eighty-year-old mansion; the house projects them back. This closed circuit baits her into something like Stockholm syndrome: for all the terrors Hill House holds for her, she cannot bring herself to leave and resolves to stay on despite the protestations of Dr. Montague and the others – by crashing her car into a tree.
Yet even then, in stark recapitulation, like the nothingness from whence we come and will again presumably return, Jackson’s devastating last lines echo the first. Eleanor’s dramatic gesture of self-sacrifice proves misguided. Death has not aligned her to Hill House at all, as she hoped, for still “whatever walks there, walks alone.”