Vintage Review – ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson – Horror, Humour, & Lesbians

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In case you’ve been living in an underground cave that doesn’t even have basic amenities like WiFi or even just in rural Ireland, you’ve heard of the newest rendition of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House‘, now blowing up Netflix. Directed by Mike Flanagan, who has also done Hush, Oculus and Gerald’s Game to name a few of my favourites, this is the latest attempt at bringing Jackson’s story of dread and unease to the visual stage, but it is not the first. In 1963 Robert Wise directed ‘The Haunting’, and in 1999, under the same name, Jan de Bont released his version. Both of these movies stick to the basic premise of the original novel with some minor changes, while the new Netflix original series has created it’s own fresh narrative. So why has the story of Hill House survived for almost 60 years? And why is it routinely recognised by the likes of Stephen King and many others as the greatest haunted house story ever written?

Basic Premise – 

The story of Hill House begins with Dr. Montague, a psychologist who rents the infamous Hill House in the hopes of documenting scientific evidence of the supernatural. To do this, he invites a group of people he believes have had some kind of interaction with the supernatural to stay in the house for the summer and take notes on everything that happens there. Unfortunately, only two show up to the house, Eleanor Vance and Theodora, just Theodora. Luke Sanderson, the light fingered nephew of the owner is sent to stay with them too though he has no connections anything out of the ordinary. From the very first moment they all feel that there is something off with the house, maybe its the fact that it was purposefully built to be off kilter and confusing, or the dark history of Hugh Crain and his family that were to inhabit the building, but whatever it is, this feeling permeates the group until odd things, undeniable and unambiguous things start to happen.

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Jackson’s Writing – 

One of the reasons that Jackson’s writing has stood the test of time for so long, is the delicacy and intricacy with which she writes. Every line is deliberate, every character full and complete. You can see this in Jackson’s other work as well but when dealing with the monstrosity that is Hill House, you feel the building take on a character of its own, and you understand completely the apprehension the characters feel just being there. It’s been said before, but Jackson’s story could have been written off a pulp novel and forgotten if not for her treatment of the words. She draws you in from the very first line, that first paragraph quoted so often that always sends chills down my spine. From that first couple of lines you know something is fucked up here, and you have to read more. 

The scares in the book aren’t bloody or gorey, they aren’t over the top or ambiguous. They are conscious and intentional, they are knockings on the wall and cold spots that everyone can feel, things that no one can deny being there. There is no what if about Hill House, it’s darkness is already there, seen even in the daylight, and everyone fears the coming of the night – especially the Dudleys.

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Lesbians were forbidden to be seen in colour until the 90’s. They’re still embracing technicolor to this day.

Theodora the Kickass Lesbian – 

My first introduction to Hill House was the 1999 movie ‘The Haunting’, where Theodora is a fashionable fun sister and friend to the sheltered and nervous Nell. Maybe I was naive, but I never got the lesbian feeling from Theo in that adaptation, but then again I was born without gaydar so who knows. But when I started reading the novel, having don no research whatsoever, I was genuinely surprised to immediately think ‘Hey! She’s a lesbian!’ It was obvious in the text and even more obvious in the 1963 movie version. But even thought the novel was written in the fifties, the treatment of Theo as a lesbian, (sexuality is not discussed in the text, but there may as well have been a neon sign following Theo around), is surprisingly positive? If that’s the right word to use?

Theo is often seen as a mirror to Eleanor, even given that she doesn’t have a second name like every other character. She is open and expressive where Nell is closed off and repressed, she has her own place where she lives with a woman, where as Nell feels homeless and lost. Theo accepts that she has some psychic abilities whereas Nell denies that the stones that fell on her roof as a child had anything to do with her. The two become close even sharing a bed, Nell begging Theo to come and live with her when she is forced out of the house for her own good. If lesbianism as a theme is to be taken seriously, from my reading it felt as though Nell wanted to be with Theo, but Theo knew they couldn’t, and Nell went mad from that small touch of freedom and home that she felt in Hill House, allowing it to consume her.

In the 1963 movie Theo is played as more forward with her advances towards Nell, and when emotions run high Nell accuses her of being ‘unnatural’, but in the new Netflix show Theodora is out and proud, as she should be in this day and age. The theme of sexual repression and repression in general is something that gives Hill House it’s power not just over Nell, but to continue as a specter of dread and fear for the past sixty years. It’s the power to not just kill you or possess you, but to turn your own mind and your own fears against you.

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This is what smiling looks like right?

Humour in Hill House – 

One of the reasons I love the novel so much and will read it again and again, is the humour shown between the characters. In my opinion one of the most important things in horror, especially a story that relies on dread and tension, needs something to offset this. It can be the saving grace to a terrible movie, and serve as a break for the reader/viewers nerves so that the story can keep on scaring. I’ve found a few of Jackson’s stories have made me laugh out loud, not least of which is ‘My Life With R.H. Macy‘, I was cackling at that for hours.

The humour in Hill House serves two functions though – to ease the tension for the reader, and to allow the characters to escape the really horror they are in. Even sitting in the house for breakfast makes them feel like they are somewhere unnatural, but pretending they are fictional characters, sisters on a picnic, they can imagine themselves somewhere other than Hill House, proving, if nothing else, that ‘No live organism can continue for long to exist under conditions of absolute reality.

There’s little humour in the 1963 movie or the current Netflix series, however they both still work well. If you haven’t seen the new Netflix show I can’t recommend it enough, I will being going back to watch it myself just to try and find all the hidden background ghosts. I have a feeling this story will continue to permeate through the coming decades and get a few more adaptations. I’ve enjoyed them all so far, let’s just hope no one really ruins it.

What did you think of the newest adaptation? Did you see Theo as gay when you read Jackson’s novel? Would you like to see more humour in horror? Comment down below and let me know!

 

If you have a horror/dark fiction/sci-fi/thriller novel, short story, or collection you would like me to review, please get in contact!

 

 

 

 

Genres – Why We Need Them and Why Elitism Harms Readers and Writers

 

So, a little story time first.

I studied English in university and during an exercise in one of the classes, we were asked to take a list of writers and place them within a circle. The more influential the writer was the closer to the center they would go, the least influential sticking to the outer rim. We were given a handful of writers from modern to ancient but the two I remember were J.R.R. Tolkien and Lord Byron. I argued in my group that J.R.R. Tolkien should be near the middle because his work has had such a huge influence on popular culture, even if you hate fantasy and you’ve never read Lord of The Rings, when you think of an elf or a wizard, you are thinking of his creations. The rest of my group agreed. Our lecturer however, did not. I was given a condescending sneer as she moved Tolkien‘s name to the furthest reaches of the circle and told that because he was a ‘genre writer’ and because Lord Byron was a ‘literary writer’ that obviously Lord Byron had more influence. I don’t know about you but I can’t name you a Byron poem, and I studied the guy. All I remember is that he had a club foot and he was there when Mary Shelley, another genre writer, wrote Frankenstein. I’m not saying he wasn’t influential and his work should be forgotten, but we have a habit of rehashing old stuff when we should be supporting writers and artists who are alive right now and actually need it.

That class was my first look into genre elitism, and as I did a double major and studied music, there was plenty more where that came from. But just like everything else in life, genres are not inherently bad, they do serve a purpose, it’s our fault for how we sometimes use them.

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What are genres good for?

We love to categorize everything because it helps us make sense of things in a complicated and messy world, and this is no less true when it comes to books. Genres are a way for us to simplify and find the things we need, they help publishers sell books to the people most likely to enjoy them, and they help readers find more of what they are most likely to enjoy – so in that sense having genres is a win win.

Have you ever been excited for a book or movie only to realise that it wasn’t what you thought it was going to be? Marketing can really be to blame for this. There are loads of movie trailers online where they’ve made kids movies look like horror, and thrillers look like teen coming of age stories – its all in how you present it.

Take this for example:

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In early 2000s Ellen Page stared in a two movies called ‘Ghost Cat‘ and ‘The Cat That Came Back‘. If you looked at these two posters they look like completely different movies, the left looking and sounding like a horror to me, and the right like a heart warming tale of love beyond the grave. The problem is, these are the same movie, and it even had a third name ‘Mrs. Ashboro’s Cat‘. WHY? Because once you stick a label on something you are shutting off the opportunity to use other labels. If you market as a horror, you get horror fans, if you market as a feel good movie, you get feel good fans, so why not cast your net wide and get both?

It’s absurd to think about now, but it’s the reason books have different covers in different countries, and why, when they realised men weren’t drinking Diet Coke because it was a ‘women’s drink’, they came up with Coke Zero, which is much more manly.

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Judge Judy wouldn’t stand for this nonsense.

Genre Snobbery

Genres can morph and merge, they can cross borders and reinvent themselves and we see this all the time in stand out books and movies. It all comes down to the formula and tropes that are used to tell the story. We all know them, and if we see certain tropes we get an idea of what we can expect from the story and we automatically label it a ‘western’ or a ‘crime novel’. But those same tropes, with just a little bit of tweaking can completely change how we think about the story. Take ‘women’s fiction’ for example, if you were to take a woman’s fiction book about family, divorce, realistic life struggles, and replace the female lead with a male lead, you suddenly get ‘literary fiction’, the golden boy (pun always intended) of genres. Sometimes books don’t fit the mold of a clearly defined genre, or the can easily slot onto the shelves of many.

Literary fiction is always given more respect than any other forms of writing. I can’t tell you how many writing groups I’ve been in where I was the only ‘genre writer’ and every time someone read a piece of mine they started with ‘I NEVER read stuff like this, so, I did’t really know what to make of it…‘ or ‘You guys are so clever coming with all this stuff! I really envy your imagination. I wish I could write like that‘. In short, it’s cute but there aren’t enough metaphors for sex or impotence. And if a literary fiction writer in one of those groups goes ‘a bit mad’ and decides to throw in something surreal, they are praised for picking elements or for transcending the genre, another sarcastic way of saying ‘you are better than them’.

The fact that its called genre fiction leads you to believe that literary fiction lies outside of genre altogether, that it is the basis for everything and therefore the most pure.

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Look at all those unnecessary commas…

And look, I’m not shitting on literary fiction, what I don’t like about genre elitism, is that we make people feel bad about what they like. We should be celebrating reading and writing, not shaming teens for ready YA, BOOKS WRITTEN FOR THEM I MIGHT ADD, or adults for reading Sci-Fi or Fantasy. Genres are a pointer, a helpful hand given us something to start with, but a great story is a great story.

Readers – Expand your reach, try new things and don’t have ‘guilty pleasures’, there’s nothing to feel guilty about.

Writers – Mix, melt, merge and smash together. Don’t let people tell you you can’t write X because you only write Y, or that no one respectable reads Z. Just make the story great.

 

What are you opinions on genre? Have you been duped before by a movie trailer or book blurb? Or do you think that ‘genre fiction’ really is sub par? Let me know down below.