Monday, August 22, 2011

small seeking sounds, feeling the edges

In this post I am going to give away the endings to The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, both by Shirley Jackson.

I walked home today, past the 99c Store, past the vacant lots where the stunted mesquite trees grow here and there like ferns, past the broken plastic, the blue dumpsters, the men with shopping trolleys who hook their stomachs over the sides of the blue dumpsters, the Mexicans on wooden stools who crush aluminium cans under a set of pine trees, and I came in, and sat down at the computer, and when I saw a Venn diagram online I began to picture one of Henry James' books as a large circle with small circles pressing against the outside and overlapping slightly in each place, and the book itself was the large circle and the subjects of his metaphors, allusions, etc, the spectre of the judgmental anonymous they who make Lady Agnes wonder if her house is mentionable, were the smaller circles, all coming in from the outside, like spermatozoa to a huge egg, always reminding it of themselves, as metaphors do, and intersecting with it everywhere so that it was trapped, in danger of leaking.

But The Haunting of Hill House was simpler, and it was a pair of circles overlapping in the middle, normally Venn-wise, and one of the circles was the character Nell or Eleanor, and the other was Hill House itself, and by the end of the book Nell is living completely in the overlap at the centre, which represents a point of extreme solitude, this upright I with its sharp angles top and bottom and no space inside to lie down or be comfortable -- she is always standing and always alone.

I've read House recently, and one of Shirley Jackson's other books, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and in both cases the story ended in a unification between two parties, like this, and in both cases the unification is preceded by violence, in both cases the outside world seems hostile, and yet the mood of each ending is different. Nell and Hill House make a cold marriage, despairing and cruel, but in Castle the two sisters have decided that they love one another so much that they want to stay together until they die, walling themselves off from the rest of the world, which comes to them and leaves baskets of eggs on the doorstep, or calls out to them in an angry voice then goes away frustrated when they don't reply, treating them like totemic witches or madwomen.

This is an idyllic ending, I think, because life for both of them was going to be so disastrous otherwise that staying together in the kitchen of their burnt-out mansion, deep in love and eating jam, is the best thing that could have happened to them, and may we all have such good relationships with our siblings, even when they are mass poisoners and leave arsenic in the sugar bowl.

But it is a creepy ending, some say (I've been skimming online reviews), this closed-off partnership between unusual sisters, one mad, one gentle, but love between unusual people is the same happy ending whose nonachievement we cry about in Phantom of the Opera and King Kong, so sad, we say, so sad, he was such a tragic figure, yet when it happens in Castle, it's creepy. People don't know what they want, I swear.

Nell is lonely, but she was not born lonely, as Hill House was born lonely, "by itself against its hills," and she was not built warped, as the house was built warped. She learnt to be lonely during the years she spent caring for her sick mother. Nell "had no friends," says Jackson, and although for a while she thinks she might have made some this idea turns out to be a failed hope, she is too self-critical and shy to make friends, she reacts awkwardly when Theodora tries to praise her or paint her toenails, and this Hill House adventure, which was going to be the liberation of a brand new Nell ("I have at last taken a step," she thinks as she is driving to the house, believing that she is breaking free, more steps will follow, the rest of her life is approaching) instead confirms that she does not have a knack for togetherness, she is natively alone, and through a procedure of supernatural hauntings and social missteps she inches closer into an intimacy with the lonely house and its freezing doorway and its eerie cherubs and its vanishing black dog and the bodiless booming noise in the hallway: "the crashing came again, and Eleanor and Theodora saw the wood of the door tremble and shake."

She wavers, as humans waver, but the house does not. The house never relinquishes its malevolence. It does not change mood. It is itself, like a character in Peake going to the Cool Room. Like a Peake character it has a massive presence. Jackson's other characters are thin when you compare them to the house; her Dr Montague is the stock figure of a professor, and Luke is not much more than a gesture in the direction of a flippant young man. He's a piece of wood with the word BANTER nailed on the front. If Swelter or Countess Gertrude appeared among Jackson's characters, they would dominate them as firmly as the house does. These characters are thin because they are tools, the author's tools, and once they have helped her to unite Nell with the house she flicks them away in two sentences.

Hill House is "not kind" she tells us, but it loves Nell better than the author loves Dr Montague.

Nell is unable to make friends without discarding the loneliness that has become her essence or her armour. She won't or can't discard it. Yet she wants friends, she wants to be part of the group, and at the same time she wants her own house, she wants to live behind a set of walls, isolated and private, she wants togetherness and isolation one after the other, a problem that the house may have solved for her when it brings her into itself at the end of the book, and she becomes a haunting spirit, inhabiting that Venn diagram overlap. "No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality," Jackson says in the first line of the book, and Nell has to go mad before the house can eat her up, she hears a voice inside her head, she talks to statues, and what has ruined her sanity? She has realised that she is alone.

Perhaps now she is no longer being pulled in two directions, perhaps she has become inhuman in her inner harmony, entering a nirvana of ghosthood. The sisters at the end of Castle have reached a sunnier unity. Never again will they have to choose between their home and the outside world. Constance will not be tempted by the idea of boyfriends. This is the acme of a decisive ending -- all problems are solved. But Jackson has made the situation terrible. All problems are solved, but now nobody can escape the solution. The solution is insoluble.

Nell wants what the monsters outside my bedroom door wanted, she wants to come in and be part of things, as I did too when I was starting school, confronted with other children in the playground who had it in their power to say, "Go away, we don't want you." Spare us from, "Go away, we don't want you," but Nell is never spared. She buckles under the nightmare of all children. It is friendship or death with her in the end, this huge and crucial value put on friends by a person who never has any. "Good bye," she says to her associates, not friends, on the second last page, "Good bye, good bye," though it is the last time that she will ever say good bye to anybody, because if any of them visit the house after this then she will be trying to come in to their rooms, banging and rattling, or laughing, or doing some other terrifying thing -- "pattings came from around the doorframe, small seeking sounds, feeling the edges of the door, trying to sneak a way in" -- and what was a child like me supposed to do when adults are capable of behaving like that?

Away she drives to Hill House as if off to adulthood, free from her mother at last, and failure finds her quickly, she is tempted, she succumbs, and no wonder I didn't want her in my room: go away, lonely silent Nell, says my seven-year-old self, go away.

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