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Monday, January 02, 2012

 

First sentences: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Requested by mmy.

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Okay, I'm going to focus on the first sentence, but I thought I'd feature the whole first paragraph because it's beautiful and I love it. I could read it all day. Shirley Jackson was a true artist of language.

So, we begin, following the title, with a broad and haunting generalisation. Film adaptations have tended to abbreviate the title of The Haunting of Hill House to a simple The Haunting (and the 1963 film adaptation is, while diverging from the book in some ways, an extremely good and highly recommended movie), but the book's full name - rhythmical and alliterative, yet neutral as the heading of a case-note - identifies immediately that it's the house, not a 'live organism', that we are being directed towards. In the first three words, the nature of what is and isn't a 'live organism' is dizzyingly in question.

Jackson is a master of the dizzying. Consider, for instance, the word order in her first sentence. While the sentence is grammatically correct, it's also syntactically unusual: 'continue for long to exist sanely' rather than the commoner 'continue to exist sanely for long', and that subtly misplaced 'for long' is balanced by the assonant echo of 'by some'. The echo is not just one of sound, the different Os and the murmuring 'ng' and 'm' of 'long' and 'some', but of linguistic category: 'for' and 'by' are both prepositions. The two main clauses are each pinned up in the centre with a matching subclause: a garland of a sentence.

'For long' and 'by some' echo each other still further by their operation on the clauses they occupy: both are qualifiers - but reflective rather than uncertain qualifiers. No sentence that begins with as strong a declaration as 'No live organism can continue...' is in doubt of its facts; instead, the qualifiers - one of time, one of minds - give a sense of overview, subtlety and authority. Our narrative viewpoint hovers above Hill House, above time and people, even above species, seeing all and naming frailties with soft-voiced precision.

And frailty is the universal condition being named here. Larks and katydids: insignificant, yes, but also cute and charming, or so you'd think. Once again, the rhythm cradles us, from a single stress on 'larks' to the fading cadence of 'katydids', and the animals themselves are usually regarded with fondness. Here, though, they're threatened with insanity. Threat pulses through the sentences: 'no live organism' raises the fear of mortality, 'sanely' the fear of madness, even 'absolute reality' has a doom-laded ring, as if reality itself is too much for us. All lead, as inexorably as a Greek tragedy to that final word, a monosyllabic finale that falls with all the heavier weight for its contrast with the complex subclauses preceding it: dream.

Not a dream in the sense of 'living your dream'. Not a dream in the sense of romance. Dream, as the alternative to madness, as an existential necessity - an escape into unreality. Reality has no shelters for us here. We can go briefly mad in our dreams, or permanently mad in our wakefulness.

In terms of address to reader, the sentence more or less commands us to suspend our disbelief: we may be in the world of dreams, but we will find ourselves there whether we accept unreality or whether we resist it. The effect is to give the whole novel a peculiar kind of authority: whether or not it is actually real is rendered almost a moot point. We will be participating in a kind of temporary madness; we have no choice in the matter. There's nowhere else to go.

Jackson is an intense observer of small social frictions, and a lot of the subsequent plot will revolve around them: the gallantries and tensions of the experimenting housemates, the cautious harmony of strangers thrown together, the power struggles generated by the appalling Mrs Montague. By beginning with the house - really, by beginning with the universe - Jackson mounts all these small interactions over a void. They assume an almost Godot-like sense of time-filling: the characters are living their larky lives, but reality - whatever that may be - is going to get them somehow.

There's probably a lot more to say about this sentence. Jackson was nothing if not subtle, and small, unnerving echoes whisper back and forth along her pages. But if nothing else, we begin with existence, with a statement of authoritative helplessness. It's a rare trick, but Jackson has created a first sentence that - elegantly, deliberately - dwarfs the whole rest of the book.

Comments:
So why have I never read this book?

I've read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, with its first paragraph that famously balances the mundane and the creepy, but never Hill House. Thanks for the reminder.

living their larky lives
that's the thing about larks and katydids, isn't it? They're all about being active in the clear light of day-- "Hark! hark! the lark at heaven's gate sings,
And Phoebus 'gins arise..."

and "The lark in the morning, she rises from the nest..."

and all that. (According to Ogden Nash, larks are also likely to be involved in aerial combat-- do you know his poem about the duel between Shelley's lark and the lark from Sound of Music? Hee.)

And katydids: "Katy did! Katy did! Katy DID!" (Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a poem about how katydids must be female because they're so shrill and insistent about such a mundane assertion, but in fact it's the males that make that sound...sigh.)

But even katydids and larks, no matter how verbal and how active, even they are subject to night and dream...Shelley, if I understand him correctly seems to think, not that the skylark doesn't dream of death, but that its dreams are truer than than those of fretful humanity's, Or how could thy notes flow in such a crystal stream? The best that we can hope for is a harmonious madness.

Have you read Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black? There's another book about a haunted woman travelling through a haunted England, that begins with a haunted first paragraph:

"Travelling: the dank oily days after Christmas. The motorway, its wastes looping London, the margin's scrub grass flaring orange in the lights, and the leaves of the poisoned shrubs striped yellow-green like a cantaloupe melon. Four o'clock: light sinking over the orbital road. Teatime in Enfield, night falling on Potter's Bar. There are nights when you don't want to do it, but you have to do it anyway. Nights when you look down from the stage and see closed stupid faces. Messages from the dead arrive at random. You don't want them and you can't send them back. The dead won't be coaxed and they won't be coerced. But the public has paid its money and it wants results."

And it's a paragraph that's perfectly balanced with the last page of the book. Allison is travelling again, through an almost equally dreary landscape, still haunted. But she's faced down the demons from her past, she's driving herself rather than being driven, she's haunted by a much more cheerful spirit:

"But today we are going to Sevenoaks, by way of Junction 5: to see whom fortune favors today...Allison checks her rearview mirror. She pulls out to overtake a truck; she puts her foot down. She moves into the fast lane, half hidden by the spray. Unmolested, unobserved, they flee before the storm. If the universe is a great mind, it may sometimes have its absences. Maureen Harrison pipes up from the back: 'This cake we're having, could we have it iced?'"

That was a good book.

"Orbital road" is much more evocative, by the way, than "Beltway," as we say in these parts. But Beltway is probably more accurate, around here anyway, a tight-pulled band trying hopelessly to contain the bulges within.
 
Ooh, I am so glad you wrote about that book/sentence. I was just rereading it the other day. It is one of the most amazing first sentences (in my humble opinion) in modern literature. I read it over and over again.

BTW, since we have been discussing (here and on The Slacktiverse) about reading genre fiction, do you think that some people approach The Haunting of Hill House as a genre work and therefore misread it? I think that that sentence does a masterful job of resituating audience expectations.
 
Based on Amazon reviews I encountered when copying the first sentence - whoa yeah. The negative reviews complain that it's not 'scary' enough, or that 'nothing happened'. Which suggests they were looking for a female Steven King (he is, I believe, an admirer of Jackson), couldn't perceive the tensions that happened between the characters because they weren't spelled out enough for them, and got, in some cases, very angry that the book wasn't what they expected.

From a genre perspective, the book is practically non-existent. There are very few thrills and spills, and most of what happens takes place in small human frictions. The genre readers seemed to feel cheated.

The first sentence didn't seem to change it for them; while I'd love to believe it was true, sadly I think it takes a lot more than a sentence to undo years of expectation and habit-cultivation. But yes, I think that people looking for a genre book are pretty much baffled by The Haunting of Hill House.

Thinking of successful modern authors, personally I'd compare Jackson more to Donna Tartt than to Steven King. Both are authors who tend to make a horror show of big egos in a small space.
 
Haven't read Donna Tartt -- must give hir a try.

I arrived at the book knowing nothing about it but having been blown away by the 1963 film. Then I read the book and just....well damn....it is one of the most frightening things in the world. But the fear it induces is, let us say, existential in character. And as a word smith. I kid you not I keep my copy by the desk and pull it out and reread it every once in a while just to glory in the writing.

Vis a vis King -- I think that some of the trajectory of his writing demonstrates one of the perils of his (and many people's) approaches to "fear" and that is that they have to up the gore and horror constantly because their audience responds to it much like a junkie does to a needed drug. Every time the dose needs to be larger and larger.
 
Oh, Donna Tartt's great! The Secret History is so compelling it's almost a guilty pleasure to read, but it's actually beautifully written, erudite and really smart. The Little Friend isn't quite such a glued-to-the-page read, but it's great too; I found it was a book that I fell in love with on a second reading. Totally recommended. She's one of my favourite writers. (She includes some fairly sharp parody in The Secret History of a university environment as well, which might amuse you if you aren't especially devoted to Semiotics...)

Personally I'd hesitate to assume that King's upping the gore (I'll have to take your word on that as I've only read a handful of his books) is based on audience response. It might be - probably some authors react to their audiences more than others - but it might also be for reasons of his own that don't have to do with his audience. Out of interest, can you describe the trajectory of his writing?
 
Out of interest, can you describe the trajectory of his [King's] writing?

I dislike trying to "peer inside" the lives of authors since I (and most people who do that) are usually wrong.

And one has to factor in something which King himself has talked about, and that is for much of his 'middle career' he was a drug addict/alcoholic. He has written at some length about this -- apparently he doesn't even remember writing some of his most famous works. And then he became terrified that if he stopped writing (or if he stopped using) he would never write again.

King also says that he started writing as a child when he believed that if you write a fear down it wouldn't come true. He had a fairly fraught childhood (one parent abandoned the family) living in a part of the US that gave birth to Lovecraft -- it is scary country -- and grew up being babysat by horror and sci-fi films. So much of his middle career was (by his own admission) him living in a drugged out state and writing his fears out in his books.

In fact you can see as his fears moved from one stage of his life to another (he used to teach -- see fears of out of control school children. He had children -- see Pet Sematary (sic). The Shining was to a degree autobiographical.)

Anyway, early on he didn't have a lot of time, was writing while holding down other jobs and wrote fairly short novels that were based on the type of fear that one easily feels walking the backwoods and backroads of his home state.

Then his work is dominated by books in which characters (often writers) are damaged by their own inability to control their desires (The Tommyknockers for example). You start to see glimpses of his private struggles (Insomnia for example.)

At the same time he became interested in developing a "created universe" so that the 'salem's lot is just down the road from another town in which he tells a story and finally he tries to pull The Stand into the world of Insomnia and The Dark Tower series and it all starts to collapse under its own weight. It becomes portentous. And his fears about forgetting how to write infect his own ability to harness his own writing.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that King's "issues" leak out in his writing because King has long consciously used his writing in order to deal with his issues.

However, he has, from his early writing, had trouble as a "closer" of stories. He builds up the biggest of big bads and then it is almost impossible to deliver on the horror that is implied throughout the book. For me, as a woman, that is compounded by his particular "issues" with women and sexuality. My 10 cent psych analysis is that King ups the gore because he can't quite reach/isolate/identify what his own personal big bad is OR he knows what his own personal big bad is but he also knows that it won't work as a denouement of a horror story.

So, he started using stories to purge him of his fears. Then he found no matter how many fears he purged himself of there were still more when he closed his eyes and was alone in his own mind. So he upped the ante in his stories but his subconscious just kept on creating more fears to respond to because without those fears -- he faces his ultimate fear -- which is that he will no longer be able to write.

Does any of that make sense.
 
That's very interesting. I've certainly noticed that King's books tend to end with, basically, a punch-up, which is something I didn't find satisfying. I've noticed as well that he'll sometimes throw scares into the mix that don't seem strictly necessary - Gerald's Game, for instance, is all about being tied to a bed on your own, unable to escape, but he has a scary madman wander into it because ... well, why? It feels like a lack of conviction about the central conceit, which to my mind is plenty horrifying on its own. (Though a massive challenge: writing a whole book about someone who can't move and has no one to interact with is something I'd never dare take on, so if it was a failure of nerve, I heartily sympathise.)

It's funny. From everything I've heard, King seems to be a very nice guy in real life - a guy who's had problems, yes, but a decent sort. But the voice of his books is often angry and mean, and I find it hard to like. Of course, every writer probably has a different 'self' in their books from their lives (my husband finds my books almost too upsetting to read, for instance), but it's an interesting thing. King reads like a writer who's not in control of his voice - which I think he himself has said. Something I find more interesting to read as a writer than a reader, if that makes sense.
 
King wrote a series of essays on writing (Danse Macabre), and in fact he says very directly what both Kit and mmy have just said about his writing: the real problem (he says) with horror writing is that you ratchet up the suspense and reveal (if I'm remembering his analogy right) ... OH NOES!!! A TEN-FOOT-HIGH BUG!!! And the reader screams in terror (presumably metaphorically).

And then, a minute or two later, the reader thinks, "Well, hey. A ten-foot-high bug isn't that bad. At least it wasn't a 100-foot-high bug." So the writer goes for a 100-foot-high bug in the next book, and ... lather, rinse, repeat.

He also commented on the relationship between fear and disgust and said, in so many words, that if he couldn't get a shiver out of his readers, he wasn't too proud to go for the good old-fashioned gross-out.

I am not particularly a fan of King's writing, but I enjoyed those essays, probably more than anything else of his I've read. On the other hand, a cousin of mine, a fairly hard-bitten cop, who is a fan of his work, says that you spend most of the book saying to yourself, "Aw, that's not so scary." And then find yourself (oneself) sleeping with the lights on.
 
One other quick point about King--I hope this isn't derailing the thread. I have gained quite a bit of admiration for him as a person, as the result of an interview from some years back, after he had a life-threatening accident. (He was hit by a guy who had multiple driving infractions and was driving in a patently unsafe fashion.)

He made a couple of points, in response to the normal interview questions about how the accident has affected his life, did he maintain a grudge against the guy, and so on. King pointed out that yes, had he been a foot to his right, he wouldn't have been hit. However, had he been a foot to his left, he would have been killed, so he's not complaining. He also pointed out that, yes, he had years of physical therapy and is left with some permanent disabilities. On the other hand, he can still do what he loves doing (writing), and he is by any measure still luckier than most people who have ever lived.

I liked that way of looking at things. Not sure I could do it under the same circumstances.

(For some reason, I wanted to say something nice about him, because I really don't care for his fiction.)
 
I tend to like King, by and large--haven't noticed the mean/angry voice myself, or not so much in the novels--but I hear you on the endings. I have something of the same problem myself--"and then some stuff happens!"--but I also don't write straight horror, so that makes things a little easier.

The issues with women were more something I noticed in earlier books, and...well, subconsciously, I'm more charitable to works written before I was born, because the world was such a benighted place, obviously. ;) Like, I remember being irked last time I read IT, because there was a weird "prepubescent girls can be action-y, but you stop being useful in a fight when you grow tits" thing with Bev, but...that was before Buffy, and T2, and Aliens. I know there *were* more action-y women, before and after, but my default reaction to more subtle sexism from pre-1990s authors is generally "Aw, they didn't know better. Bless their hearts."

I remember reading Haunting of Hill House , and finding it creepy, but am vague on the specific details. Should read it again, because it was good.
 
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