Harriet Lane had staff jobs at Tatler and The Observer and was a contributor to The Guardian and Vogue before turning to fiction. Her first novel, Alys, Always, is published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson; Scribner will publish it in the US/Canada in June 2012. Harriet lives in London with her husband and two children. Here she writes about Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House .
Harriet Lane on The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
A year ago, an American friend asked me if I'd read any Shirley Jackson. In the US Jackson's fiction is apparently on the syllabus, but I had never heard of her, although her short story 'The Lottery' - when I worked my way around to it - felt almost shockingly familiar. Perhaps I'd encountered it once, a very long time ago. Or maybe it just felt like that, like a story I already knew, in my bones.
One warm day in June 1948, Jackson came back from grocery shopping, put the baby in the playpen and, in a matter of hours, wrote 'The Lottery'. When The New Yorker published it later that month, hundreds of readers cancelled their subscriptions. What did it mean, this peculiar, frightening little story set in a small New England town that is excitedly and nervously readying itself for a mysterious annual event ('Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon')? And how did this person - the pregnant wife of an academic, a woman who mostly wrote funny columns for Ladies' Home Journal and Good Housekeeping - come to even think of such a thing?
'The Lottery' is a perfect miniature. There's not a word out of place. It's cool, spare, precise and full of horror. I loved the way it made me feel when I read it: I loved the creeping sense of unease, the certainty that something terrible was going to happen, and the uncertainty of how exactly this would manifest itself.
Shirley Jackson does this again and again. Her writing is all about tension: the tension between the individual and the group, reality and fantasy, sanity and insanity. In her novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959), the boundaries are especially permeable. I can't think of a book I've read recently that has frightened and pleased me more.
Much of its power comes from its refusal to countenance the usual rules. Jackson plays endless tricks with her narrative, teasing the reader much as Hill House teases its inhabitants, baffling them with its confusing layout, its oppressive history and atmosphere. She repeatedly whips the rug from beneath your feet (and the floorboards and joists too). And it works, because she's so good at what she does. It's fabulous storytelling: bold yet sly, outrageous yet lucid, and utterly original.
Because Jackson's language is so disciplined, you never lose faith in it. Throughout the hallucinations and apparitions, she holds you right there, while refusing to answer all your questions. It's a novel built around a central nagging ambiguity, and that's one reason why I love it. By leaving things so open-ended, Jackson invites us to become conspirators, disoriented participants in the madness. It's a delicious, alarming feeling.
The story - there have been several film adaptations - has the anthropologist Dr Montague inviting a collection of strangers, some more vulnerable than others, to spend the summer under his supervision at Hill House. Montague is interested in psychic disturbances and 'had been looking for an honestly haunted house all his life'; Hill House, we know from the off, fits the bill perfectly. It is, we learn in paragraph one, 'not sane'. And now, driving towards it in a state of unfamiliar anticipation, comes Eleanor Vance, 32, who has spent the last eleven years nursing her dying mother, and who sustained herself through those years of thankless drudgery (her mother, it is plain, was a tartar) with 'the belief that someday something would happen'.
The book has a trippy quality from the beginning. It's littered with vivid and puzzling images, some troubling, some gorgeous, and many both. What do we make of the little old lady with whom Eleanor collides outside the city garage, whose bag splits open on the sidewalk (disgorging 'a broken piece of cheesecake, tomato slices, a hard roll'), who screams, 'Damn you damn you... I was taking it home for my little lunch'? What do we make of the family dining in the country restaurant, the little girl who refuses to drink her milk because she will only drink milk if it comes in 'her cup of stars'? What do we make of Eleanor's fantasies as she drives to her destination already drunk on the novelty of her adventure, the wonderful sense of event, momentarily inhabiting the houses and cottages that she glimpses along the way, with their stone lions, their blue doors and white cats and rows of oleanders? We experience Eleanor's thoughts - full of fancy and hope, and also anxiety - as they occur to her, and Jackson renders the elasticity of Eleanor's consciousness so that we feel for her, and we start to fear for her too.
It's Jackson's triumph that she engineers our sympathy and understanding without making Eleanor particularly likeable. Like many of the other characters and indeed Hill House itself, Eleanor is uningratiating: contrary and awkward, an assembly of disconcerting angles. (The dialogue between the houseguests is so arch, you can only really describe it as 'repartee'.) But her quest - to find a place, peace, 'home' - is the force that keeps the novel powering onward, with a dread inevitability that I find very moving. Ill-at-ease, unloved, culpable, Eleanor recognizes in Hill House the thing she has always sought - though, characteristically, at the very climax of the novel, as she finally grasps hold of her own destiny, she is assailed by doubt: 'Why am I doing this? Why don't they stop me?'
It's a novel glittering with ideas that are both beautiful and obscurely menacing. A cup of stars. A red sweater. A bowl of glass flowers. Doors that open on to more doors. Something unseen moving over the grass, a little way in the distance. Though I long for answers, Shirley Jackson declines to provide them; and in the end I'm glad of that.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]