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.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Brief Sojourn in the Twelve Kingdoms

Charming the Moon
In Charming the Moon, Emily Snyder presents two tales from the early history of her world of the Twelve Kingdoms, which is the setting for her novel Niamh and the Hermit: A Fairy Tale.

"Brigglekin the Dwarf" tells how Brigglekin came to possess a glowing silver sphere containing a radiantly beautiful woman named Mira and what he does with it. The world is in twilight when the story begins, a time "when the Titans slept in punishment for their infidelities, and there was no more Day or Night, and all the land lived in a Perpetual Twilight." The referenced Titans are the Sun and the Moon. The sphere containing Mira is the Moon. Brangwenn, a goddess who acts as guardian of the world and often appears as a flaming-winged bird, leads the dwarf to the lake in which the moon sleeps and helps him find it. When Brangwenn leaves him with the silver sphere in his hand, she tells him: "Brigglekin, this gift is not for thee. Through selfishness was she lost, and if thou provest likewise selfish, she will be lost again." Brigglekin, who has always been a seeker of silver, can think of nothing better than to hoard this new treasure, but as she leaves him, Brangwenn bids him to release the prisoner and find an even greater reward. Brigglekin cannot break open the sphere with his pickaxe, and seeing no way to release the beauty inside, takes it to his home inside the roots of an ancient sycamore. For days he stares at the sphere, entranced by its beauty, until some other dwarves arrive looking for him. They try to take it, to give it to the king of the dwarves, but Brigglekin prevails and sends them away empty-handed. The dwarf decides to return the sphere to Brangwenn and sets out on a long journey to the north where he encounters dragons, the sea, and a reward beyond his imagining.

"Ostrung the Giant" recounts the Sun's quest to reunite with the Moon, which has returned to the sky thanks to Brigglekin. The Sun travels on foot across the land in the form of a child, trying in vain to capture the attention of the Moon soaring overhead. All his attempts fail and no one will help him until he meets Ostrung, a kindly giant and an outcast. This story provides some much needed background information on the banishment of the Sun and Moon which adds context to Brigglekin's story. The first paragraph in "Ostrung the Giant" explains the troubled relationship between the Sun and the Moon and provides an example of Snyder's tone.

When last the Sun ruled in the sky, he saw within her Citadel the girl called Mira, whom men now call the Moon. And as he looked on her, he loved her; and as he loved her, he could not bear to part with her; and when he would not part with her, his radiance turned her valley all to gold, and his passion left the land as dark as his desire. The warnings of his brothers he would not heed, nor the pleas of those who worshiped him as a god. For as long as his beloved delighted in his company, the Sun would not stray from her side; and the girl named Mira loved her man of beauty and of light.

Snyder tells her tales with a serious tone befitting mythic lore but also mixes in comedy. The "battle" scene between Brigglekin and the other dwarves approaches slapstick. It is difficult at times to follow who some of the characters are since the reader is dropped into stories without having the full context. Readers of J.R.R. Tolkien's Silmarillion will know what I mean. Of the two tales, I found the longer story about Brigglekin the most rewarding. Brigglekin faces internal and external conflicts and must step beyond his comfort zone to resolve them. Snyder introduces a rich world in these tales and I am looking forward to a longer sojourn in Niamh and the Hermit.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Recent News

My story "The Fletcher's Daughter" has been accepted at Residential Aliens. (A fletcher is someone who makes arrows.) In this variation on the Cinderella tale, the maid Cinderella attends a ball in place of Princess Desriella, who has sprained her ankle. Cinderella wears arrows, a gift from her father, stuck through the hair at the back of her head. Will the arrows make her look silly or will she usher in a new fashion? And what will the Prince say?

In other news, my story "Tapestries of Betrayal" is out in Greek Myths Revisited from Wicked East Press. This is a retelling of the myth of Tereus, Procne, and Philomela. I based my story on Ovid's version but made significant alterations to the original myth's conclusion. This is a wild, tragic ride with lots of violence and gore and embroidery and, of course, betrayal on many levels. Here's an excerpt:

As [Procne] descended the winding stairs to the great hall, excuses tumbled through her thoughts, explaining Philomela’s absence. Perhaps her father had found a suitor, another arrow in his quiver of alliances. Perhaps their father was ill and Philomela dared not leave him.

Itys ran across the tiled floor, across the mosaics of hounds and stags and falconers, and leapt into his father’s arms.

“Oh, Itys.” Tereus held the boy to his chest. Itys’ feet dangled below his father’s belt. “I’ve been gone too long.”

Procne stood back several paces, staring at the reunited pair, despairing over her reunion with her sister. Tereus averted his eyes.

“Where is Philomela? When does she come?”

Tereus gave Itys to his nurse, who led the boy away.

“Philomela is dead,” he said. “Bandits. They ambushed us. They killed both my men.”

Procne fell to her knees. Her scream ripped through the hall.

“I spent these weeks hunting them down.”

Procne wrenched her braids loose. Her black hair fell about her face. She ripped her tunic from neck to waist, exposing her breasts, the nakedness of her sorrow. She hid her face in her hands as sobs shook her.

Tereus clasped her shoulder. “I burned her body to save it from the wolves.” He nodded at Elpis, who clutched the boy in her robes. “I must speak to the steward and I have to find a new squire.” Tereus walked out of the hall.

Tears dripped from between Procne’s fingers to the mosaic floor, pooling on a stag with a hound gripping its throat.