Sunday, October 23, 2011

Hill House, Not Sane

Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House has become a personal icon of mine, one of my all-time favourite novels. It is unconventional in a way that I like, restrained admirably but layered with irony and still genuinely creepy, and overall a wonderful piece of literature. I'm a fan of Jackson's work in general, but this is the top.

However, I had the grave misfortune of seeing Jan de Bont's 1999 film version of The Haunting of Hill House before anything else. Fortunately, it didn't stick with me, didn't colour my later interest in the novel and the first film.

In fact, it's a pretty blessing that I forgot about 1999 version, because this recent review by The Nostalgia Critic shows me what I couldn't recognize before: not only is it a genuinely bad movie (all I remembered that the house looked bitchin' cool and nothing else was memorable), but it is horribly contradictory to the spirit of the original book, having big scares and a main character who becomes an actual heroine.

Besides that unknowing blunder, my history with Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House began when I took an interest in Stephen King's non-fiction book Danse Macabre, a book I'd picked up in the tornado of King obsession when I was a kid, but never read because I had discovered it was non-fiction. As an adult, though, it's a great read, an overview of the horror genre that is part informal criticism, part memoir.

King makes much of Shirley Jackson's book, coming back to it several times when discussing haunted house stories. Yet what stood out to me above everything else was his excerpt of the book's first line: "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." It's such a wonderful line, expressing, in Jackson's excellent style, that fantasy is intrinsic to existence. It also composes part of one of the most effective openings I've ever read, engaging the reader while giving away so little. We are left to wonder how this relates to Hill House, which then is described as "not sane".

The entire book is fascinating. Firstly, it is an interesting take on the haunted house story: slow and introspective, but it works so well, better in that form, in fact, because it is more unusual. I'm not a big horror reader, but I love brooding stories if the characters are compelling. The Haunting of Hill House is also layered with irony: while the scares are genuine, there is little real sympathy for the mousy protagonist.

The Haunting of Hill House offers no such easy paths, of course, but if we were to measure things in degrees, Eleanor just feels like she is less meant to be loved than simply pitied, or even perhaps hated. She is a child in an adult's body, and easily taken (figuratively and literally) by the house, which she is convinced loves her. Her immaturity and her giving into the house is not tragic but blackly comedic. It is clear that her personality is the result of her terrible home life, but nonetheless, she is at fault, and cannot escape. We just watch Eleanor, a bug inside the terrarium, with a clinical tilt of our heads. I don't love Eleanor, but I enjoy watching her self-destruction.

It's a fascinatingly different way to handle a protagonist, and it's what makes the 1999 Eleanor's transformation into passionate heroine so painful to see. It's completely a misfire, turning her into something crass and...uh, "common", especially when nobody seems to realize the stupidity of a woman who's been crushed by her own family unironically using the force of familial love to banish the horrible father-demon.  Jan de Bont can't even make Eleanor's spine-growth convincing, either. This is why we have people who hate adaptations, folks.

Robert Wise's original 1963 version, however, is far better. It is elegant and effective, complementing the book perfectly, not only through faithfulness, but in simply being good. I've been able to track down a DVD copy, and look forward to watching it, in the spirit of the season.

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