THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson

Most readers remember Shirley Jackson from her short story “The Lottery,” one of the most famous American short stories and one that stayed with me long past the school reading assignment. It has taken me an absurdly long time to dive into her novels, but now that I have, I’m completely hooked. I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle this summer and completely adored it, but it was her quintessential haunted house novel The Haunting of Hill House that seemed the perfect fit for this season. In this blend of psychological thriller and good, old-fashioned, things-go-bump-in-the-night scares, Jackson proves herself to be a crucial influence in the modern horror landscape.

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Published in 1959, The Haunting of Hill House is a classic haunted house story. It begins with Dr. Montegue, a scientist studying paranormal activity. He is particularly interested in Hill House, which has garnered itself a reputation as a place where no one can stay for long, and invites three guests to stay with him for the summer and take notes on their experiences: Luke, the young man who will one day inherit Hill House; Theodora, a young woman with an apparent telepathic talent; and Eleanor, who is eager to begin a new life after having spent years caring for her dying mother. The story is told through Eleanor’s point of view, and as strange and terrifying things begin to happen in the house, they seem particularly targeted towards her. As Eleanor struggles to understand this, her guilt and insecurity begin to eat away at her, which only seems to feed the evil of the house more and more.

Jackson is a master at harnessing the reader’s imagination to create deeply unsettling scenes. So much of the horror of this book is psychological, having to do with the way Eleanor reacts to Hill House. At the same time, plenty of really creepy things seem to happen, too. Like most of my favorite horror stories, the real power lies in what the reader doesn’t see. Most of the physical terror of the story happens literally on the other side of a closed door, allowing the reader to imagine the worst.

As much as I love all of this creepy stuff, my favorite part about Jackson’s novels are the female relationships she creates, which are complicated and passionate and fraught and so honest, and a complete joy to read. When Eleanor arrives at Hill House, Theodora is the first one to follow, and the two bond almost instantly. They explore the grounds, laughing and joking about the terrors they might encounter, but for Eleanor, there is an undercurrent of fear in her joking that she worries Theodora doesn’t share. Then: “Unexpectedly–although it was later to become a familiar note, a recognizable attribute of what was to mean ‘Theodora’ in Eleanor’s mind–Theodora caught at Eleanor’s thought, and answered her. ‘Don’t be so afraid all the time,’ she said and reached out to touch Eleanor’s cheek with one finger. ‘We never know where our courage is coming from.'”

The relationship between Eleanor and Theodora could be read as an intimate friendship, born of the strange circumstances, but it seems to me impossible to not read romance in it, as well (and coincidentally, an article just published today on Book Riot agrees with me). As the house eats away at Eleanor, her emotions and temperament rise and fall, and without fail, her most passionate feelings, both hatred and longing, are directed towards Theodora. As captivating as the thrills and terror of the story are, it was this relationship that kept me turning the pages above all else. It is compelling and beautiful and, at times, heartbreaking. (Also, a completely delightful surprise in the midst of my haunted house book.)

The Haunting of Hill House is my favorite book of the season thus far. It was both terrifying and emotionally enthralling. The writing is beautiful, the characters are lively and interesting, and the setting does not at all disappoint. Jackson has definitely become one of my favorite writers, and I could see myself enjoying this book every year when the weather begins to get a little bit colder, and the wind picks up and makes the house shudder and creak.

SPOOK: SCIENCE TACKLES THE AFTERLIFE by Mary Roach

I have always been a sucker for haunted houses. This time of year, I can easily be swayed into watching one of those Travel Channel specials about the Top Ten Spookiest Truck Stops (or what have you). I have even been on a couple of ghost tours (alas, to no avail, although it was interesting to learn about the pirate history of a small North Carolina town and to see the winding passages of the Winchester Mystery House). Despite the fun I take in these things, I would probably describe myself as a skeptic when it comes to haunted houses, albeit a light one. I have fun pretending I believe, and I like to keep an open mind, but it would be nice to have some proof.

This made me very excited to read Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach, a writer who has made a name for herself by following her insatiable curiosity down the most minutiae-laden rabbit holes. When I first picked up this book, I admit that I was a little daunted by the task: I didn’t necessarily want to confront mortality in a deeply existential way to get my Halloween kicks. Fortunately for me, this book manages to be a lighthearted and fun trip through some of science’s more bizarre chapters. Roach’s aim is not to prove (or disprove) the existence of the afterlife or the soul, but rather to highlight the quirky, surreal, and oftentimes pretty gross ways that people throughout history have tried to. As Roach says in her introduction, “It’s a giggly, random, utterly earthbound assault on our most ponderous unanswered question.”

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The best part of this book is Roach herself. She is definitely a roll-up-her-sleeves kind of writer, and she takes you along as she chases down every lead. The book is even filled with footnotes, allowing the reader to decide just how far they want to immerse themselves in these topics: in a couple of cases, the text of the book had taken me plenty far enough, but more on that in a moment. The other great thing about Roach is that she is so funny. Actually laugh-out-loud funny. Reading this book began to feel like having a conversation with Lorelai Gilmore, if Lorelai Gilmore had developed some strange obsessions of late (and anyone who knows my deep love for Gilmore Girls will know what a compliment that is). Roach’s humor is smart and fast and surprising, and I can’t wait to read more of her for this reason.

My only complaint about this book is that oftentimes, Roach has a much stronger stomach than I. You might not expect it, but some of our history’s ghostly obsessions have been, well, disgusting. Roach never shies away from the details of any topic, making sure that she sates all possible curiosity. If I were a different person, this quality would be a compliment, and really, I intend it as one. But as Haley, the same girl who had nightmares about the Magic School Bus after seeing the episode in which they shrink and are swallowed by a classmate, there were a few instances where I could have been spared the details. (This problem has also confirmed what I already expected, which is that I would struggle through two of Roach’s most popular books, Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers and Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal). I only include this note as a warning to potential readers, and Roach herself does the same thing by titling the most difficult chapter “Hard to Swallow” (through it all, she maintains her sense of humor, which is greatly helpful).

Another thing to note: Spook isn’t really, well, spooky. The most frightening chapter was definitely the one called “Inside the Haunt Box,” which details one scientist’s work in determining if electromagnetic fields can cause hallucinations that could explain ghost sightings (or, perhaps, if such fields merely make us more in tune to these presences), but for the most part, everything in this book is more fascinating than scary. Which, again, is a compliment disguised as a complaint. I only include it as a caveat to make sure you have the right expectations if you decide to check it out.

I think that science writing is so important. Books like Spook are great not just for the information they impart, but for the way they inspire us to pursue it, to ask questions we might never have considered before. If you’re interested in a fascinating trip through some of science’s trippier moments, this is a great read, especially if you’re not too squeamish. As for ghost stories, I’ll probably still peruse the Travel Channel this year, but hopefully I’ll do so with a more discerning eye and Wikipedia at the ready. And yet, I would hate to paint Roach as a joyless skeptic. As she herself concludes, “The debunkers are probably right, but they’re no fun to visit a graveyard with.” After reading this book, I can say with certainty that Roach would be a fabulous graveyard companion, just as Spook is a fun companion to the ghost stories and haunted houses of this season, whether you’re a believer or not.

Off-Syllabus Links: Week of October 4, 2015

Here are my bookish links for the week:

I loved this conversation between OSU MFA alums Claire Vaye Watkins and Annie McGreevy. A lot of interesting ideas about writing fiction while navigating things like “ideas” and life situations.

This is a really important perspective from Lo Kwa Mei-en about what it means to be a “banned author,” and how that could mean something different for writers of color.

And, for Halloween fun, here is a list of books on ghost hunting. (If #3 sounds interesting to you, I think you’ll like next week’s review.)

CORALINE by Neil Gaiman

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a bit holiday-obsessed. As soon as the calendar is turned to the right page, I am covering my home with decorations, listening to themed music, and eating whatever CVS is willing to wrap in the appropriate colors and stock in that middle aisle it reserves especially for the weak wills of people like me. You might think that this could only apply to Halloween and Christmas, but I’ve been known to put up Valentine’s Day window stickers and stuffed rabbits with pastel bows. Basically, I’m everything Tim Horton’s wants when they strategically decide the colors of their doughnut sprinkles. To quote Icona Pop: I don’t care, I love it, I don’t caaaaare.

Halloween is a particular favorite, though, especially because of the stories associated with it. It is in this spirit of Halloween that I have chosen the books I plan to read and review in October. This week is a book I’ve been really excited to revisit. It’s the first book that I remember DEEPLY scaring me as a child, so of course, it was one of my absolute favorites. And let me assure you, Coraline by Neil Gaiman absolutely holds up.

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Coraline is a story about a young girl who is cunning and stubborn and extremely bored in her new home. Her parents are a bit of a rarity for children’s literature. They are not especially whimsical or a source of entertainment for Coraline, but they are attentive enough and generally well-meaning. Still, Coraline is a bit lacking in companionship and fun, so when she finds a secret passage to a parallel world, one that mimics her own in many ways but is much more interesting, it proves to be entertaining at least. But when Coraline returns home to find her parents missing, she has to venture back into the parallel world and contest with her Other Mother to get them back. What was once interesting and new becomes nightmarish and awful, and Coraline has to outwit it if she wants her life to return to normal.

One of the best things about this book is the character of Coraline. I think she’s so refreshing because she doesn’t act the way one might expect a child protagonist to act. She is not so hyper-precocious that she seems unbelievable, but she isn’t helpless and naive. For example, one might expect that when she first encounters the parallel world, she would be instantly charmed by it. Instead, she is curious but remains weary, deciding that she would prefer not to spend the night there. The sorts of things one usually yells at horror story protagonists never come up in this story. Before you think Don’t do that!, Coraline herself has decided that she probably doesn’t want to, thank you very much.

IMG_3690Of course, the world of this book is also as consumable and fun as Halloween candy. Neil Gaiman’s imagination has yet to disappoint me, and Coraline is no exception. What Gaiman creates here is almost an uncanny childhood wonderland: everything is whimsical and fun, and should be wonderful, but is just enough off to be completely unsettling instead. The scariest things in the parallel world are the singing rats, an element I had completely forgotten:

“The rats formed a circle.
Then they began to climb on top of each other, carefully but swiftly, until they had formed a pyramid with the largest rat at the top.
The rats began to sing, in high, whispery voices,
We have teeth and we have tails
We have tails we have eyes
We were here before you fell
You will be here when we rise.

Just, shudder. No thank you no thank you no thank you.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t talk about perhaps my favorite element of this story: the cat character. This is the most accurate, best depiction of a cat I’ve ever encountered in literature. When Coraline finds it in the parallel world (the only creature, besides her, who can move between them and doesn’t have a counterpart there), she discovers it can talk and briefly bickers with it about the fact that cats don’t talk in her world:

“‘Well, you’re the expert on these things,’ said the cat dryly. ‘After all, what would I know? I’m only a cat.’
It began to walk away, head and tail held high and proud.
‘Come back,’ said Coraline. ‘Please. I’m sorry. I really am.’
The cat stopped walking, sat down, and began to wash itself thoughtfully, apparently unaware of Coraline’s existence.”

Every encounter with the cat is perfect.

What do you think, kitty?

If you’re looking for a good, fun, scary read this Halloween, this is a great choice. It completely breezes by (I read it in one sitting) because it is so enjoyable. There was also a kid’s film made about it a few years ago. (Behind-the-scenes note: I typed “a few years ago” and then found the trailer and discovered that it came out in 2009. What is time. Why.) While it changes some things, it still captures the core of the story pretty well, including the Uncanny Wonderland-ness of the world and the spirit of the protagonist. The film also, like the book, has its share of “nope nope nope” moments. If someone were to try to adapt this book into a straightforward adult horror movie, I think it would go over really well, too. It’s just so creepy and great. Have a cup of something warm, curl up under a blanket, and enjoy this book.

Off-Syllabus Links: Week of September 27, 2015

Here are my bookish links for this week:

In my continuing post-graduate Genre Renaissance, I’ve really been enjoying delving back into the world of Young Adult fiction (I say “back” because, of course, this was my first genre, the one that made me love literature). This list on Buzzfeed books certainly added a few to my to-read pile.

I’ve adored professional traveler Samantha Brown ever since I was a wanderlust-stricken middle-school-er watching her program “Passport to Latin America” after school. Turns out she’s been to some pretty amazing bookstores in her day.

The Atlantic recently gave some serious and thoughtful treatment to the oft-maligned Hufflepuff house (which, incidentally, might be my house based on some conflicting personality quiz results…I’m waiting for the definitive answer from the new Pottermore site).

And finally, because October has begun and I just can’t help myself, I’ll be giving you at least one spooky link for every entry this month. Here are some tips from horror writers about how to scare your readers.