16 September 2011

Richard Matheson's "Hell House"

The 1999 cover. Source
Or, the Ballad of Florence's Breasts.

 Richard Matheson is considered to be a legend in horror. If you want a good example why, see here and here. I hate to say it, but I don't think Hell House is up to par with Matheson's other works. It was a quick, breezy read with some freaky moments, but I think if you want the crème de la crème with Matheson, you're better off reading I Am Legend.

When I first started reading Hell House I was ready to dismiss it. Earlier I finished reading Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and when I started reading Hell House the territory seemed all too familiar. The Haunting operates under the premise of a scientific investigation into the paranormal. The participants are chosen based on their experiences with psychic phenomena in the hopes that they'll entice Hill House to show its true colors. Dr. Montague leads this investigation and tries to keep it as scientific and unbiased as possible, despite the strange occurrences in the house. Hell House operates under the premise of a scientific investigation into the paranormal, funded by the eccentric and wealthy Rolf Deutsch. The participants are chosen based on their experiences with psychic phenomena in the hopes they'll entice Hell House (the Belasco mansion) to show its true colors. Dr. Barrett leads this investigation and tries to keep it as scientific and unbiased as possible, despite the strange occurrences in the house. Oh, and there's a lot more sex and violence in this one.

Actually, I'm all for sex and violence. They're two primal parts of ourselves...and they work so well with horror, because fear is another primitive aspect of our being. However, sex and violence are only effective and shocking to a point. If it's too much of the same thing, you bet redundancy kills the thrill.

Which leads me to this post's subtitle: The Ballad of Florence's Breasts.

Not only will this increase my blog's status on Google and Bing for search engine hits (yay boobies!), but I made this subtitle to prove a point. You were a bit surprised to see this as a subheading, right? Well, the effect will be lost if I talk about Florence's breasts over and over and over again in this post. You'll be like, come on already, unless you have pictures I'm just not interested in Florence's breasts anymore. 

This is what happened to me as a reader while I read Hell House. To Matheson's credit, he does give readers fair warning about the type of experiences his characters will have in the Belasco Mansion via the mansion's backstory. Emeric Belasco, who built and resided in the mansion, was an illegitimate child who hanged a cat at age five, sexually assaulted his sister before age ten, was sexually abused at a private school by a male teacher for a number of years...then when Belasco inherited his father's millions, he built his mansion, a place where he could exert control over others in a series of sexual, violent amusements (Matheson, 55-58). Basically, imagine a bunch of drunks killing each other and sleeping with each other simultaneously. Throw in circus sideshow performers, the Marquis de Sade, virgin sacrifices, gladiator arenas, a theatre, a ballroom, and an enormous sacrilegious/pornographic pseudo-Christian chapel and that's the Belasco Mansion.

I knew to expect some crazy stuff to happen to Dr. Barrett and his guests based on this history. And I knew to expect violence and a lot of sexual depravity in terms of haunting phenomenon. Although I didn't think a lot of it was that shocking (Maybe it was different in the 70s, when the book was written...). The problem is there was a lot of recurring imagery throughout the novel; a lot of moments where I thought, here we go again; a lot of familiar horror tropes. Oh, and then there's the matter of Florence's Breasts!

Florence Tanner is one of the psychics in the investigation of Hell House. She is also a pastor in addition to a spiritualist medium...but she also used to work in Hollywood as an actress so you know she's going to be the hottie of the story. Because she's sexually attractive and also happens to be religious, I expected the house to mess with her on both counts (since Belasco himself was big on profaning both)...and the way she met her end in the Chapel of Boner Jesus was fitting and completely expected.

And a whole lot of nasty things happened to Florence's Breasts! The mean ghosties of Belasco mansion just wouldn't leave them alone. Add to that various excuses for Florence to doff her top (Dr. Barrett and his wife Edith needed to get a good look at them...especially Edith) and Florence's Breasts have become a main character in the novel (although Edith's breasts have a time to shine as well).

FLORENCE'S BREASTS! p. 64, 72, 84, 85, 92, 120, 127, 128, 134, 139, 158, 217, 231, 241, 242.

If you read the same thing over and over again, it loses its power. Not just Florence's breasts, but the number of times the characters ran to her room after she screamed; the trope of a psycho kitty cat scratching and clawing at someone when something supernatural is afoot; the religious type versus the scientist type; the Deus Ex Machina/God Machine, (the Reversor here, although it thankfully doesn't quite work 100%); the Ghosts in the Ballroom; the Woman who fell in love with a Ghost and was tricked into sleeping with it; sleepwalking into bogs/moats/rivers/ponds; record players with old recorded messages; the séance/possession; blah blah blah. I realize that a lot of these old tropes were  a deliberate choice of Matheson's, because you can better manipulate your audience when you know your reader is expecting X,Y, and Z. I expected X,Y, and Z, but I also expected to see something a bit...newer, maybe? Different?

And a little less breasty.

Matheson, Richard. Hell House. New York: Tor, 1999. Print.

03 September 2011

Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House"

The 2006 Penguin Classics edition cover.
My experience with Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House began not with the book itself, but Robert Wise's excellent 1963 film The Haunting. My second encounter was the 1999 version of the film which I saw in the theaters when it came out. Finally, the third time a charm, I read the original novel for my Seton Hill genre class. It's a classic that I'll happily recommend to horror fans, and fans of ghost stories in particular.

The haunted house is my all-time favorite type of ghost story. It's not so much how the ghosts manifest themselves in the house (although that's a fun part of it), but the history behind the house itself...the circumstances that turned it evil.

The stories behind haunted houses are nearly archetypal; you can name them off the top of your head, whether you know the actual ghost story or not:

1) Someone died tragically
2) Someone was murdered there
3) Bad luck and accidents
4) The ground the house is built on is cursed or unholy....etc., etc.

What makes The Haunting of Hill House a standout isn't so much the house's history (which I'll let you readers discover on your own), but the history of the novel's main character, Eleanor Vance. Which leads me to this post's subtitle...

Whether ghosts exist or not, you cannot deny that some people are haunted. We commonly refer to these manifestations as "personal demons"...the past we can't let go of, the feeling of guilt, of unfinished business. Human beings crave closure, and if we don't feel that something is resolved, it's amazing how long we can stand and ask ourselves, "Why?" We haven't put the problem to rest; we keep it going; we hold it back from moving on and crossing over into rest. Which is what a lot of people say about the nature of ghosts: a ghost exists because the living holds onto it, and it can't pass on to the next plane or final destination; or the ghost exists because it can't let go of the living, and it can't move on.

Our personal ghosts are the scariest thing we carry with us. As frightening as haunted houses are, they're a finite horror. The ghosts are confined to the grounds on which the structure is built. As Dr. Montague says of Hill House, "At least it can't follow us, can it?" (Jackson 124).

But the sick, twisted human mind--that doesn't shut off until it's dead. Which means whatever haunts our memory will continue to do so until we put it to rest. Some people do have the strength and resolve to do so...a lot of people can't (which is understandable...I do not judge. I have my own demons, too). "No ghosts in all the long histories of ghosts has ever hurt anyone physically. The only damage done is by the victim to himself" (Jackson 140).

So take a place like Hill House, with its demented, off-angled architecture and shady history, and then toss a person like Eleanor Vance into it...there's a reason why the ghostly activity in the place explodes.

In quick summation, Eleanor is 32 years old when Dr. Montague singles her out to partake in his scientific study of paranormal phenomena at Hill House. When she was a child, stones rained down on her house for three days, which Montague classifies as the work of a poltergeist. Because of this confirmed supernatural event, Montague invites Eleanor (and similar participants) to the house in hopes of blowing the roof off the place (in terms of haunting activity).

With a childhood memory of that caliber, you'd think Eleanor's poltergeist experience would the memory that haunts her and fills her with unanswered questions: What was that, how did it happen, why did it happen? But this is really incidental in comparison to Eleanor's real ghost: her mother. There are secondary ghosts that haunt her--childhood, summer, time itself...but it all relates back to her mother, who died under Eleanor's care.
Robert Wise's 1963 film.

Eleanor devoted the majority of her existence to being her mother's companion while she was ill and bedridden. Although Eleanor had a sister, the role of being her mother's caretaker was pushed on her, and Eleanor lost eleven years of her life (and in a way, freedom). The reader gets a clear picture of Eleanor's feelings: "The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister" (Jackson 6). So...there's very strong resentment she holds for both of the women in her family.

Although Eleanor's sister shows up in a couple scenes as a point of antagonism, Eleanor's dead mother makes several appearances throughout, not only surfacing in memories and anecdotes, but in Hill House itself.

Shirley Jackson is clever to construct parallels between Hill House's phenomena and the horrors Eleanor experienced as her mother's caretaker. For example:
  • The loud banging on the walls outside Eleanor and Theo's bedrooms // Eleanor's invalid mother banging on the wall with her cane as she slept in bed
  • The lost childhoods of the Crain children, having grown up in the darkness and isolation of Hill House // Eleanor's lost childhood, isolated in her mother's home, friendless, and in darkness (Eleanor develops an inability to face strong sunlight without blinking repeatedly)
  • The story of the Companion who took care of one of the Crain daughters // Eleanor as Companion to her mother
There are parallels to Eleanor's personal life in ways that do not directly involve the supernatural, but manifest in Hill House nonetheless. A good example is with Theo...Eleanor simultaneously adores her and yet is repelled by her, which strikes me as similar to how she must've felt about her mother.

This really comes out when Theodora is frightened, particularly when she discovers the blood on her bedroom walls and all over her clothing. Eleanor thinks Theo is self-centered; a baby who wants to be the center of attention. But she is even more disgusted because she feels she has to clean up after Theo; she doesn't want any physical contact with her when she's filthy with the bloodstains. This reminds me of one of the earliest descriptions of Eleanor's life with mother: "Caring for her mother, lifting a cross old lady from her chair to her bed, setting out endless little trays of soup and oatmeal, steeling herself to the filthy laundry" (Jackson 7). Compare that to her feelings for Theo: "She thought, without trying to find a reason, that she had never felt such uncontrollable loathing for any person before, and she went into the bathroom and soaked a towel and came back to scrub roughly at Theodora's hands and face. 'You're filthy with the stuff,' she said, hating to touch Theodora" (Jackson 157-158). Eleanor doesn't want to be the Companion, but she can't escape the role, and she seems to resent Theo for pushing her into it.

Near the end of the novel, towards the climax, Eleanor comes right out and gives a voice to the biggest thing that haunts her: "It was my fault my mother died" (Jackson 212). WHAM! This has plagued her for the entire novel, and her entire life...it's only fitting that this appears at the end of the novel. The end = resolution (closure). And resolution is what a haunted person, or a haunted spirit, seeks above all else.

Of course, resolution can have a steep cost...


Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting. New York, NY: Penguin, 1999. Print.