Thursday, September 29, 2011

Visiting Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House
If you like haunted house stories, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House should be on your reading list. This is a wonderfully creepy short novel featuring some memorable characters and a sentient house. This is a psychological ghost story in the tradition of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw and follows Eleanor Vance's descent into madness. One could also argue that Eleanor has not so much gone insane as she has become one with the house. Whether Eleanor is insane or possessed depends on the reader's opinion of the supernatural, but within the confines of Jackson's novel, there is evidence for both.

Possessed or insane or driven to insanity from being possessed, that's all fodder for future blogging. What I want to touch on today are some features of Jackson's style: her use of free indirect speech (also known as free indirect discourse) and her adverbs.

The point-of-view in The Haunting of Hill House is third person. The narration shifts back and forth between Eleanor's view and thoughts to a more distant view in which the narration covers events of which Eleanor has no knowledge. The interesting points are the ones in which the narration dips into Eleanor's thoughts. Often, Jackson uses normal indirect speech, adding the tag phrase "she thought" to a sentence to let us know these are Eleanor's ideas. Consider the following paragraph:

Luke came, hesitated in the cold spot, and then moved quickly to get out of it, and Eleanor, following, felt with incredulity the piercing cold that struck her between one step and the next; it was like passing through a wall of ice, she thought, and asked the doctor, "What is it?" (p. 87*)

In other cases, Jackson slips from normal indirect speech to free indirect speech, dispensing with any tag phrases and employing the pronoun I, skirting the edge of first-person narration. Consider the following paragraphs:

I could help her in her shop, Eleanor thought; she loves beautiful things and I would go with her to find them. We could go anywhere we pleased, to the edge of the world if we liked, and come back when we wanted to. He is telling her now what he knows about me: that I am not easily taken in, that I had an oleander wall around me, and she is laughing because I am not going to be lonely any more. They are very much alike and they are very kind; I would not really have expected as much from them as they are giving to me; I was very right to come because journeys end in lovers meeting. (pp. 157-58*)

I could, of course, go on and on, she wanted to tell them, seeing always their frightened, staring faces. I could go on and on, leaving my clothes for Theodora; I could go wandering and homeless, errant, and I would always come back here. It would be simpler to let me stay, more sensible, she wanted to tell them, happier. (p. 177*)

In a post from last year "Why No Adverbs?", I listed some of the problems associated with adverbs. When I began reading Hill House, I noticed that Jackson makes frequent use of adverbs. The more I read, the more I noticed them and some struck me as odd, maybe even sloppy. By the second half of the book, I stopped noticing them. I guess the story had become so compelling that they no longer stuck out or I had grown accustomed to them. Here are some examples that stuck in my head:

Journeys end in lovers meeting, she thought, and could only say inadequately, "Are you looking for us?" (p. 40*)

Jackson's characters frequently say things "inadequately." I know what Jackson is trying to say, but isn't there a better way to say it?

"Too much vermouth," the doctor said, and followed them lingeringly, watching the nursery door over his shoulder. (p. 89*)

How do you do something "lingeringly"? I devised a few alternatives that I've listed below.

  • "Too much vermouth," the doctor said, and followed them, watching the nursery door over his shoulder.
  • "Too much vermouth," the doctor said, and followed them, lingering every few steps to watch the nursery door over his shoulder.
  • "Too much vermouth," the doctor said, and followed them, lingering to watch the nursery door over his shoulder.
  • "Too much vermouth," the doctor said, and followed them, lingering, watching the nursery door over his shoulder.

The goofy adverbs put a slight blemish on an otherwise outstanding read. Do those adverbs bother any of you?

*Page references are from the 2006 Penguin Classics edition.


  1. I've noticed the same thing with some of Matheson's work, and I've had to wonder. Hill House is currently on Gizmo, and I look forward to reading it.

    On a related note, congrats on reaching your September Write1Sub1 goals!

  2. Ooh, interesting post, Jeff. I started Hill House this summer. I am enjoying it, but it's a little slow going for me. I also noted the adverbs, but they don't bother me all that much. In general, I don't mind adverbs. As long as they are used deliberately and appropriately. *snort* Congrats on your W1S1 progress for September!