The Original In So Many Ways: Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’

In re-reading Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House after almost thirty years, I was struck by a number of things I’d missed as a teenager. First, the obvious lesbian attraction between Theodora and Eleanor. Second, the homage to Lovecraft’s Dreams in the Witch House. Third, the fact that everyone and their aspiring screenwriter grandma has adapted this story or some aspect of this story when writing a haunted house tale. Hell, this became the plot of an episode of Doctor Who!

First, let’s look at the lesbian subplot. Though it’s never overtly revealed that Theodora is a lesbian, her fight with her roommate seems to indicate that the two are closer than mere friends. Then there’s her initially flirtatious attitude toward Eleanor and the latter’s infatuation with the more whimsical, self-assured woman.

As the debate rages among Puppies and Social-Justice Crusaders, it’s interesting to note that LGBTQIAA+ relationships and issues were appearing in horror even as far back as the late 1950s. There’s a very clear lesbian  subplot here and this is the canonical haunted house tale. To those among the Puppies crowd who scream, “Nobody is interested in LGBT story arcs!” I’d say, “Horse apples. We’ve been interested in such for over 55 years.” To those well-intentioned but historically ignorant among the Social-Justice clique who argue that LGBTQIAA+ stories are missing from the genre, I’d level the equal charge of “bullshit” for precisely the same reason. The fact is, the subplot is there and it’s compelling and it helps drive aspects of the overall story. Moreover, there has never been anything terribly subtle about it. It is what it is.

Now, consider the description of Hill House itself. Jackson touches on the concept of an evil feng shui giving the place the appearance–and soul–of a malevolent entity. The interior of the house is decorated in dark wood carved into images of life. And life within the house is precisely that: imagined, imaginary, representative, two-dimensional, fake. Yet the place serves to open a portal in and through Eleanor–character, setting, and setting as character merge in a sort of fractured anti-trinity that doesn’t peacefully coexist, but possesses, dominates, manipulates, and controls to the point of death.

The geometric considerations in the book, descriptions of lines and angles, turns and twists in what should otherwise be fixed structures and standard architectural design elements, give the house its evil quality. Hill House represents a perversion of sacred geometry, a temple not to some lofty or noble ideal, but to the Infernal. Hill House stands in the literary landscape as twin and sister to the Witch House of Lovecraft, the absurdly constructed dwelling that connects the past and the present–and the malevolent Witch, and her familiar “Brown Jenkin”–an excursion into the nightmare realms of non-Euclidean inter-dimensional geometry that can only be learned in one of two places: R’lyeh or Gallifrey.

Observing that I’ve called this the “canonical haunted house story” it only stands to reason that we can find derivative works based on Jackson’s work in popular media. With two film adaptations (1963 and 1999) the novel has also inspired or simply been stripped to supply the plot for countless other haunted house stories (there are elements of the work in almost every contemporary haunted house movie from Insidious to Cabin In The Woods.)

Strip the awful ending, stick time travel into the tale, and give everyone a British accent and slang we have to actively work to decipher, and presto-change-o, you’ve got a place-holder stock episode of Doctor Who.  Sure, sure, sure, it’s supposed to be a take on the Borley Rectory, but then there’s a bit of that myth tucked into Hill House, as well.

While Jackson’s prose leaves a bit to be desired–the lady isn’t quite clean and clear by today’s standards–her tale endures. It merits study, represents the return of the repressed in a perfect way that speaks to itself for those familiar with the hypothesis, and offers an insight into a truly gifted mind.

5 thoughts on “The Original In So Many Ways: Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’

  1. Warner H. M.

    Great analysis. I especially liked your views on the sexual tension between Eleanor and Theodora. I think your explanation and observations were excellent. It almost seemed as though Theodora toyed with Eleanor. Although Eleanor repeated her line about lovers meeting throughout the book, and she mentioned the “prince” several times…it seems as though she may have been looking for the princess.
    This is my first horror novel, and although I didn’t find it scary (suspenseful, yes) it’s interesting to see that so many works have been influenced by this story.
    Great write-up!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. kristinsuzy

    Your responses are so well-thought-out and amusing, Victor.

    Yeah, I definitely got the lesbian vibe from Eleanor, and I wondered about Veronica’s roommate, though I think Jackson left that just vague enough. I’ve had a lot of girl roommates, and those relationships are hugely contentious. It’s hard to stay friends with roommates, so I can’t accept Veronica’s domestic dispute as evidence of romantic involvement. I took it as standard operating procedure of girls trying to cohabitate with girls. But Jackson left an awkward beat in the story when Eleanor asked Veronica if she was married. It was that scene that made me go back and reread Veronica’s introduction, and Jackson left that nice and ambiguous.

    Now Eleanor, on the other hand–that woman’s got a girl crush. And I wonder if her insecurity and lack of direction is because of the heteronormative culture of the time, that she hadn’t worked out a way to be who she was. It seems a little odd that a woman in her thirties (a spinster by then, ha!), who hates her family and her life, wouldn’t jump on the first prospect of marriage to get away from it all. Oh, except that she doesn’t really care for men. She sure is fault-finding with the male characters in this story.

    Eleanor needs to step out of the closet. Not that it’ll help her in the end, which looms terribly near.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She has an issue with men largely because she’s never really learned how to speak to them, I think. They’re a mystery. Her whole life has been dedicated to caring for her mother.

      Eleanor may be sexually confused. Clearly the idea of love is one-sided in her head–her caring for her mother. And the idea of love is bound up between two women–her and her mother. This could be a surrogate mother issue, or a surrogate self issue. Theodora is the woman Eleanor could have become.

      Something tricky and psychological is going on. We get the impression that there’s a lesbian attraction, and there definitely is, but is it true or is it tinged by Eleanor’s expectations and ideas about love?

      I could spend a year in each of these characters heads.

      Like

      1. kristinsuzy

        Definitely. I think that’s the real interest in this story. Theree are some very scary bits, and I’m intrigued by the world (and the old house!) Jackson built, but the real story is what’s going on in Eleanor’s and Veronica’s heads.

        Liked by 1 person

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