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The Haunting of Nothing Much

So following a review on-line a few months back, I finally sat down and read The Haunting of Hill House.

Given the number of jacket quotes assuring me that this was one of the scariest ghost stories ever written, I took the precaution of removing my pants to make clean-up easier in the event of mishap, settled in, and watched my desire to punch the heroine in the head grow with each passing hour.  I am sorry to say that as terrifying ghost stories go, this one may have passed the sell-by date.

There were some scary bits, but it felt a bit like a Blair Witch Project of a book–”I am willing to be terrified. Okay, that’s scary. Okay, that’s…bullshit, actually. Okay, I want every person in this to die…and now it’s over. Hmm. I wonder if I can get my money back?”

The writing was good, don’t get me wrong, it was moody and at times even elegant, the first and last paragraph are lovely. But that didn’t get me over the fact that I came to loathe the heroine very quickly. I was sympathetic for the first couple of chapters and I respect everybody’s right to be horribly damaged and all, but my whiny/clingy/self-centered-o-meter rapidly buried the needle. I will give Shirley Jackson abundant credit for expressing so well the kind of fragile wide-eyed crazy that makes the air around someone vibrate and makes you move without a forwarding address to stop them from showing up on your doorstep at 3 AM, but that doesn’t mean that I am going to care if a haunted house eats said crazy person’s soul. If anything, I will hope for it to happen faster, just to get it over with. And even having apparently been eaten by a haunted house, the heroine was still marvelously ineffective and useless and prone to irrational conversation.

The conversation was also aggravating. How to explain? It doesn’t matter how well you write dialog if the dialog is nonsensical. These people have long conversations, which are sometimes witty and delightful but often baffling and useless. Perhaps there is some deep overarching meaning that I am not picking up on, but many of the arguments come wildly out of left-field, and people get very angry over nothing that I can really determine. They say things that I cannot imagine saying under the circumstances, that do not seem to follow logically from anything said before and their emotions seem to have no bearing on what is going on.

It is possible that this was an expression of The House Getting To Them, but what it came across for me was “My goodness, what horrible, stupid, and catty people. If I met people like you in real life, I would never want to hang out with them.” (Theodora did come close to saying something along the lines of “My, what an insipid little shit you are,” which I applauded, but even her emotional responses were still weird and didn’t seem to follow logically from anything.)

Now, this may again go back to the Blair Witch problem, which is that people are acting irrationally and occasionally stupidly, and nothing is guaranteed to make me want to kill you more than being stupid. It’s a recurring problem of ghost stories, sad to say–people act dumb.

So the house wants to keep shutting doors and you can’t prop them open. Don’t try ONCE, and then find them unpropped and say “Well, it must be the housekeeper,” and never try again. This sort of behavior does not endear you to the reader. It makes the reader jump and down and yell and eventually put on their pants in rage.

(Tangentially, a movie that did some bits exactly right was Poltergeist. Specifically the scene where the chairs in the kitchen are behaving strangely, and the mother starts moving them around trying to see what will happen. That I understood. I would absolutely have done that, too. Other bits of the movie veer between terrifying and corny, but if the house is ever haunted, you will come over and find me stacking chairs with exactly that expression of alarmed curiosity.)

So…yeah, no. Didn’t work for me at all. The Red Tree, which I picked up on the strength of the same review, was wonderful and terrifying and I loved it, and it had a very damaged heroine too, but not one that I wanted to drop-kick out a plate glass window. So it can definitely be done. And I didn’t mind the lack of detailed explanation for Why The House Was Bad–honestly, I was fine with what I got there. I’d say it was a great set-up that ended too soon, except that if I had to spend another five minutes in Eleanor’s head, I would have given up to go play Minecraft, so going longer would not have fixed matters.

So…yeah. I have no idea why this one went down in the canon of great horror stories. If somebody’s got an explanation, feel free (and I will accept “You are too dense to appreciate the fine nuance of Eleanor’s suffering” as a valid explanation!) Why does this scare people? Why did it ever scare people? Was our threshold of terror really that much lower in the Sixties? What gives?

Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.

*wanders off to watch "Horse of the Invisible" by William Hope Hodgson, from The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes.*

Haven't read the book, but did see the movie, which I thought was good, especially the scene where Claire Bloom and Julie Harris are in a dark room together and Julie says, "Why are you holding my hand to tightly?"

And the lights come on and their beds are on opposite walls.

That one scene still sends shivers down my spine.

That's one of two genuinely scary scenes in the book, too. It just...kinda petered out, there.

Well, I don't know about The Haunting but what I found is that while I *loved* Jackson's "The Lottery" I didn't much care for the other short stories of hers that I read.

So, I dunno.

Personally, I liked The Haunting of Hill House, and I could see where The Lottery was going from the word go and was horribly underwhelmed.

I have nothing to say except only you could use the phrase "put on their pants in rage" and have it make perfect sense.

Personally, the scariest thing I can deal with is Neil Gaiman, and even then it can get a bit much.

Oh, but Neil Gaiman is scary! Croup and Vandemar from Neverwhere are the creepiest characters I've ever read in a book, hands down.

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Maybe you were supposed to be sympathizing with the house, and with its horror in having to put up with those people living in it?

(disclosure: I haven't read it and don't have anything actually constructive to say)

That would actually be a really good angle for this kind of story.

"Goddammit, will these crackpots move out already? I'm waving the furniture with all my might!"

(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
You are not alone in thinking these things. I had to read The Haunting for my Horror Fiction class a few years back, and this is exactly what I thought. So I'm always a little puzzled when I read things like Neil Gaiman saying it was one of the scariest books he's read. And he writes far scarier things.

Perhaps he means it is the scariest he's read because it was bad or because of the characterization, not because it would scare someone who isn't an author.

I've had a similar response to every Stephen King novel I've ever read. "Salem's Lot", for example, is the only vampire novel ever during which I was cheering...for the vampires.

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(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
Just out of curiosity, do you have any good horror books to recommend? I'm always looking for a decent horror book. Too many of them are just disappointing or dissolve more into mystery or fun rather than horror.

Well, I did enjoy "The Red Tree" like I said, and "Firefly Rain" by Dansky has some good bits. Um...can't think of much else off the top of my head. I enjoy Stephen King, but you like him or you don't, and when he misses, he misses by twenty miles and hits a barn in the next county.

Dan Simmons has disappointed me greatly in recent years.

Honestly, I wish I knew more, because I'm having a hard time finding genuinely good scary stuff myself that really scares me. Good ghost stories are hard to find.

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(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
I rather liked Jackson's memoirs, but I never did get along with any of her fiction.

I wonder if some of the story’s reputation isn’t reflected glory from the genuinely terrifying 1963 movie adaptation. A friend and I got to see it on a big screen a few years ago, and she damn near leaped out of her skin when I accidentally brushed her arm with my hand about halfway through.

That said, while I don’t like The Haunting of Hill House as much as "The Lottery," I enjoyed it far more than We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

I confess, I am not feeling any great desire to run out and read more of her work. The writing was well phrased, but the character development left me baffled and irritated.

(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
Well maybe it was scary in 1959 but that was over half a century ago and we have come a long way with writers like Stephen King and others.

The only haunted house novel that got to me was a romance novel called "Vanessa" by Kay Martin that didn't so much terrify me as make me weep for ghosts - a child sacrificed in the building of an earlier house, the victims of the plague in a mass grave and others - it was a layered haunting.

if the house is ever haunted, you will come over and find me stacking chairs with exactly that expression of alarmed curiosity A flist friend of mine grew up in a haunted house and describes it here. Her description is very believable at least to me.


*beth goes to link*
*beth observes every hair on her arms standing up*

My mom stayed in a house in England that had "hot and cold running ghosts." Images/visions of a rearing horse in one room, a singing/piano-playing couple in another, a shivering ghost walking a hallway every night, and a poltergeist who made a bathroom cold and eventually shoved someone on the stairs. They actually found a way to get rid of the poltergeist, and the bathroom stopped being unnaturally cold.

And then there was the kid who haunted the neighborhood in the house that I lived in for... rather a time. We had a "brachiation bar" set (those round-runged horizontal ladder things that are supposed to develop upper-arm strength in kids) in one of the alcoves, and if you stood at the side of the alcove, you could sometimes feel the breeze of a Non-Bodied Someone swinging back and forth on the bars in front of your face. (I also saw halves of cats fleetingly from the corner of my eye up there... more than once.)

Nevertheless, that huge room was where we played Hide And Seek In The Dark when friends stayed over. (Rules. Like hide and seek, only no flashlights until you got found. I once hid between the cushions and the back of the couch; the seeker started pulling one away to use it as a pillow and wait for us hiders to make a noise, and I turned on my flashlight so I wouldn't get sat on. This was apparently rather startling. O:>)

My mom tried shooing the kidghost away many times, but it always came back. Always upstairs, though. Never downstairs. A friend of mine who wound up doing house-cleaning for neighbors said that it would show up in the upstairs rooms of other houses in the neighborhood, too.

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I've only watched the movie, The Haunting. I've never found a Horror Book particularly scary, gross grotesque but never frightening, even when it was meant to be.

In fact the only Horror Book I enjoyed so far has been The Keep, but then I was rooting for the bad guy throughout!

Hard NOT to root for the badguy in the Keep, he's a charming, convincing vampire-like demon who's snacking on NAZIS.

Things I am taking away from this.

1) Haunted House gets indigestion from Crazies and becomes cranky.
2) Rage-fuelled trouser donning.
3) Musical chair party games with ghosts.

Oh, good! My lack of interest in this tome was NOT epic fail on my part, because I kind of wanted to feed her to badgers and found the scary house kind of wimpy.

I have no idea why this one went down in the canon of great horror stories.

My all-purpose answer for this question: "well, it's still better than Lair of the White Worm*". My favourite bit is when the Van Helsing character decides to walk into an obvious trap:

"It is an old trick that we learn early in diplomacy, Adam—to fight on ground of your own choice. It is true that she suggested the place on this occasion; but by accepting it we make it ours. Moreover, she will not be able to understand our reason for doing so, and her own bad conscience—if she has any, bad or good—and her own fears and doubts will play our game for us. "

*The book, that is. The film is cheesy fun, and plus, Amanda Donohoe.

Apparently he forgot 'Home field advantage'