Haunted Houses

During the Halloween season I like to read ghost stories, especially haunted house stories. After reading a story I enjoy playing ghost-hunter, not for the ghosts portrayed in the story, but for the ghosts that metaphorically stood behind the author as he or she was writing the story.

I recently read House of the Seven Gables for the first time and was a bit disappointed to find it is a story about guilt, not ghosts. I’m OK with the contrived plot, many ghost stories have such, but Hawthorne’s tendency to lecture the reader sometimes gets out of hand. In chapter 18 he indulges in fifteen pages of direct discourse about the character flaws of the evil Judge Pyncheon. Jane Austen’s "free indirect discourse" is a better way to handle these explanations.

To my mind the greatest flaw in House of the Seven Gables is that the viewpoint character, Hepzibah, is so passive, which I feel makes it hard for the reader to care much about what she wants or where she is going. Apparently Hawthorne himself was a rather passive character—which I view as driving his character creation as much as guilt for Puritan misdeeds. Passive characters, especially vapid heroines, are more at home in the Gothic novels of the late 18th century than in haunted house stories of the 19th century.

I think ghost stories are better suited to short stories than full length novels. The 19th century produced a lot of good writers of short ghost stories: Poe, Le Fanu, R.L. Stevenson, W.W. Jacobs, Blackwood, Machen, M.R. James, Stoker and many others.

For guilt-ridden judges in haunted houses, I like Sheridan Le Fanu’s story Mr. Justice Harbottle. In this story, the villain blusters, sees ghosts, and comes to a well-deserved violent end. A much more engaging villain than Hawthorne’s who dies quietly sitting in a chair. LeFanu was Anglo-Irish and I believe his own ghosts were his apprehensions about disintegrating British rule in Ireland, generational guilt over the Anglo-Irish Ascension, and the stress caused by his wife’s mental health deterioration. 

In Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House the house is characterized as evil right from the start, which ironically forms part of its attractiveness to neurotic Eleanor Vance. The house’s spookiness is beautifully described and Eleanor's descent into madness as she is captured by the evil spirit of the house is nicely illustrated through interior monologues. The book became a best-seller. Stephen King praised the novel's opening and closing paragraphs both ending with: "...and whatever walked there, walked alone." It's in Eleanor’s mental conflicts that we most clearly see the ghosts haunting Shirley Jackson: her low self-esteem over her appearance, money problems, a philandering husband, and resentment of women’s place in small town 1950s American society.

Shirley Jackson's money problems were soon resolved. The Haunting of Hill House, published in 1959 sold very well. Then, in 1961 she was paid $67,000 for the movie rights to the novel – an astronomical sum for that time, which completely resolved their money problems. Sadly she didn’t have much time to enjoy her new found wealth. She died in 1965 at age 48.

The 1963 movie made from her novel The Haunting is one of the better haunted house movies, atmospheric and suspenseful without relying on computer generated effects, or violence and gore. I actually like it better than the book. The movie was remade in 1999 starring Liam Neeson, but I prefer the earlier version.

Here's the trailer to the 1963 movie:

Mike Trial
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