If, as Stephen King put it, we step into the mind of a madman when we enter Hill House, then it’s only a partial truth. Really, it’s the mind of Eleanor, not quite mad, not quite stable. It’s a mind in turmoil like millions of others living right now. She imagines elaborate alternate lives, daydreams sequences of fantasy and wonder, she escapes to foreign worlds because her own is so unsatisfying – that Hill House should seek her out is no real shock, then. But what is interesting nonetheless, is how we come to understand or, more importantly, to stop understanding her as her life unfolds in Hill House.
Will I, she thought, will I get out of my car and go between the ruined gates and then, once I am in the magic oleander square, find that I have wandered into a fairyland, protected poisonously from the eyes of people passing?
The first chapter allows us a view of Eleanor’s mind in stark contrast to the introductory passages dedicated to the other characters’ lives and thought habits. Those other characters are, though very much alive and with their own quirks, not quite interesting enough. Before even her fantasy around the stone lions and oleander fairyland, Eleanor alone is given the most human treatment: she knocks over an old lady and the agonising awkwardness of the encounter is perhaps one of the most relatable things in the entire novel (unless, of course, you yourself are a haunted house, in which it is less relatable).
She crashed into a very little lady, sending packages in all directions, and saw with dismay a bag upset and break on the sidewalk, spilling out a broken piece of cheesecake, tomato slices, a hard roll. “Damn you, damn you!” the little lady screamed, her face pushed up close to Eleanor’s. “I was taking it home, damn you damn you!”
Don’t you know that feeling? You seem to spend all day aching over your inconvenience to those around you, and yet in those pinnacle moments of most care, it all seems to fall away from you. Well, I know the feeling anyway. Eleanor isn’t quite careless, in fact, her whole life has been defined by caring, but she is flawed in a way outside of the fictional world necessarily needed for a scary story, she’s actually one of us. And it’s this relatability that grabs at the core of why her mind is such a fascinating concept in this book.
Now let’s look at that first evening in Hill House, in chapter three. What is it that begins to take a hold of Eleanor? It’s there, it’s affecting her and yet what is it? I have long been deeply appreciative of any writer about to narrate the experience of alcohol taking its hold on a thought process. If you want my opinion, my favourite writer so far is George Orwell in his underrated (even he disliked it) book, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, when his terribly unlikable protagonist gets paid for a poem in an American magazine. That is how you write about booze. But is it booze that’s taking hold?
She could feel the thin stem of her glass between her fingers, the stiff pressure of the chair against her back, the faint movements of air through the room which were barely perceptible in small stirrings of tassels and beads.
The most inane becomes the most sensitive when alcohol wraps its around a synapse or two, and so this seems fit for it. Eleanor’s internalised narrative is strengthening in this moment, her mind is fixating. We’ve already seen this in her appraisal of her surroundings and her self-validation of having, for wont of a better word, a clan to which she belongs, before Mrs Dudley’s dinner is served. It continues on, her reappraising of her situation, her own judgements becoming more prominent.
She likes attention, Eleanor thought wisely and, without thinking, moved and sat on the floor beside Theodora.
Again, is this the brandy? Is this a mind merely on the cusp of intoxication, mixed with the anxieties of the everyday you and me? I won’t linger – let’s fast-forward.
After the first terrors of Hill House have visited themselves upon the guests and the fear is alleviated with jokes at the expense of Mrs Dudley, there should be respite – if it were not for that ghoulish message scrawled across the walls, of course.
“And maybe, of course, you wrote it to yourself,” Theodora said again.
And the doctor laughed, then, and she stared at him and then at Luke, who was smiling and watching her. What is wrong with me? she thought. Then – but they think Theodora did it on purpose, made me mad so I wouldn’t be frightened; how shameful to be maneuvered that way.
“I was frightened.”
“Of course you were,” the doctor said, and Eleanor thought, How simple he is, how transparent; he believes every silly thing he has ever heard.
What was, and continues in parts to be, packaged with insecurity and the need for validation somehow now seems sinister, doesn’t it? There’s something chilling creeping over Eleanor’s internal commentary. A virus, spreading and mutating through her thoughts. It is attacking her rational defences. We’ve all done it, we’ve all rushed to conclusions, but in the moment of Eleanor’s terror, the conclusions she reaches seem alien from herself. We read on in horror, not for the events inside Hill House, but for the events inside Eleanor’s mind, that troubled, bumbling human being.