No Explanation

March 8, 2013

I just read The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson. I came upon the book wholly by chance, and I recognized it as a classic of American horror fiction. It was an interesting, but ultimately disappointing, read.

The story follows four strangers (of dubious character) staying at a purportedly haunted mansion to study the place. There’s a lot of psychological probing of the viewpoint character, the lonely Elanor Vance. The action builds up for a long time, laying a foundation of seemingly mundane creepiness, before the real haunting begins. This part works—up through the first major manifestation, which is genuinely frightening (to the extent that anything typewritten on a page can be frightening).

The high point of the action is that night, fully of ghostly moving animal shapes and pounding crashes against the bedroom doors. However, after that the story doesn’t really go anywhere. The book includes virtually every trope of haunted house lore—queer architecture, creepy servants, inexplicable spots of cold, threatening noises, shakes, lights, ghostly graffiti, invisible figures disturbing the surroundings, visions of past inhabitants, and spiritualist attempts to contact the dead. (The last of these are satirized for their obvious absurdity—as if they were really more nonsensical than any of the others.) Jackson executes many of these manifestations very well; I particularly liked that both the house itself and the extensive grounds were equally possessed by spirits.

Yet there’s no pattern to the haunting. There is a pattern—of a sort—to the psychological melodrama that accompanies it, but even there, it’s very hard to identify with the main characters. They spend most of their time trying to sound like Dorothy-Parker-style wits. And in neither arena, supernatural nor psychological, is much of anything explained. Of the occult occurrences, we are left unsure what, if anything, was real. The human drama is only infinitesimally better resolved, although it sports a very energetic conclusion.

This reminds me of the Steven Spielberg’s film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which similarly throws together every motif of the flying saucer genre. (I don’t use “UFO” here, since that stands for “unidentified flying object,” and I hate seeing it used as a synonym for “alien spacecraft.”) This includes planes gone missing in the Bermuda Triangle, unexplained lights, children sucked up into the sky, and even fuzzy pictures of frisbees. (Fortunately, the concept of anal probing was not a major part of alien encounter stories back in the early 1980s.) At the end, we get to see that the aliens are real, and they want to communicate with us, which is a lot more of a conclusion that we get in The Haunting of Hill House. However, there is no explanation for why the aliens, who have been wandering around Earth for a long time, have taken so long to actively get in touch. Nor do we get any reasons why they’ve been doing the various silly things that alien visitors supposedly do. The strange happenings that make up much of the plot are never accounted for; no explanation for them is ever attempted. Of course, the reason for this is that no logical explanation is probably possible. These elements are part of the story not because they make a coherent picture of anything, but because they are the vague tropes of a genre with no basis in reality whatsoever. And that’s why the weird things that happen at Hill House don’t add up to anything either; they’re present because they are fixtures of the genre, not because they have any coherent underlying explanation.

It’s fine to leave some thing mysterious, but I like to have some idea what’s going on when I get to the end of a work. In these cases, however, that’s not really possible, because there simply is no explanation for what’s going on. The stories are just pastiches of supernaturalist tropes. This can be interesting for a while, but the lack of any attempt at a resolution eventually becomes quite tiresome.


2 Responses to “No Explanation”

  1. Could be worse. Another run of the mill ghost story, James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw,’ doesn’t really quite explain itself, and as a result of that and changed social understandings regarding governesses (i.e. the story’s narrator), has inspired something like one-hundred-thousand published articles about its symbolism of Freudianism (the ghost first appears in a tower, obviously a phallic symbol), Feminism, Marxism, Adam-and-Even…and ninety-nine-thousand other very silly articles, even though James wrote a forward explaining it was just a ghost story, and for some reason most students tend to read it that way.

    Digression over. At least people aren’t trying to make THIS story other than boring and inadequate.

    • Buzz Says:

      Do you know whether “The Turn of the Screw” was viewed that way in James’s own time? It seems to me (based purely on my impressions) that ghost stories have gotten less popular and less respectable as serious literature over the past century or two. Shakespeare wrote about ghosts relatively freely. Hawthorne wrote about ghosts as well, but he was more circumspect, often giving an explicit “out” for a reader who didn’t want to believe in such things. By Jackson’s time, she could write about unexplained manifestations, but the idea of coherent communications with sentient spirits was an object of derision.

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