Eleanor’s Mind – The Haunting of Hill House

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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.

Spoilers, duh

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.

 

 

 

 

Madness in The Haunting of Hill House

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Madness. Suffocating madness. Poisonous madness. The kind of madness that creeps and crawls in the dead of night as you sleep, peering over the edge of your mind, laying doubts, unanswerable wonderments in those unmonitored darkest corners and creases. It is insidious. That’s the horror of The Haunting of Hill House. Stephen King, in a deferential essay in Danse Macabre, said of Jackson’s novel, “One thing we do know about Hill House is that it is all wrong. It is no one thing we can put our finger on; it’s everything. Stepping into Hill House is like stepping into the mind of a madman[.]”

Gentle spoilers ahead…

Eleanor, the novel’s protagonist, is the result of a troubling start to life and, over the span of the story, seems to be the unfortunate vehicle for both the progression of the narrative but also the reader’s sense of horror. People, especially young people, like Eleanor, who must quickly learn to shoulder a burden few ever have to consider can often become wounded by the continued grind of simply being. They are bound to carry on, sometimes by duty, by love, by guilt, by any number of instinctive feelings, combined or totally separated, and they’ll do it accumulating more and more mental exhaustion to their burdens. It’s no wonder then that we spend so much time in Eleanor’s mind; her coping mechanism has become a fantastical, internalised world that carries her off at the flick of mental switch. And what better place to instil those first terrors.

There are some beautiful passages in the book. So much so that I’ll even take the somewhat daring step of comparing the final paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House to the final paragraph of The Great Gatsby. Both speak to the impossibly stubborn continuation of being. The things that hurt, that cause or feel pain, the things that experience all the love that can both cause it and destroy it. And rather than meditate on that – because I’m definitely not the first – I’ll simply say that these are the words we all live for. They aren’t exactly comforting in the reassuring sense, but they do offer comfort in a way that tells us that some things are immovable. Being defiant in the face of fear is courageous some of the time, but there’s also a great deal to be said about yelling and screaming and running away as fast as you possibly can. We are not immovable.

 

 

Christine, by Stephen King

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There is a reason that reviews tend to be negative when it comes to Christine – it’s not that it’s a terrible book, it’s that there is just too much of everything in it. It takes too long to move the car from one place to another, never mind the narrative, and where the rare moments of incisive teenage mental angst come, they arrive in the minds of under-nourished characters. However, for all the negatives, it is hard to outright demonise this giant volume, the product of a shit ton of coke and booze in the body of a bestselling novelist, because it still delivers the sort of tricks that only King seems to manage. For one thing, he made the junky, forgettable concept of a demonic car sort of, well, memorable. As King himself said in a 1984 interview,

An audience can relate to a certain degree to something like a haunted house, The Amityville Horror, traditional horrors like ghosts, vampires and things like that. You give them a car, or any inanimate object, and you’re suggesting something that is either along the pulpy lines of the E.C. comics, or else obviously symbolic. […] When you do that, you’re really starting to take a risk. But, that’s also where the excitement is. If you can make somebody go along with that concept, that’s really wonderful.

Christine is the name of a ruined old Plymouth Fury that ensnares a young, acne-ridden teen, Arnie, to open his wallet and then later his soul. Dennis, his only friend, is forced to watch from a distance (literally; he’s in hospital for half of the novel, taking a break from narrating things) as his nerdy little friend becomes the world’s most unlikeable dick. Will Dennis get his friend back from the borders of Crazy Town, or will the old car steal poor Arnold Cunningham away forever?

I took a break from Christine about halfway through to read a couple of other books. When your book is over 700 pages long, it’s easy to stray into the warm embrace of a 300 or 400 paged other lover. But, as it turned out, it was good to come back to it after that break. As James Smythe notes in his Guardian blog, there is a formula oft quoted to the ridicule of a King story: “x (where x = any seemingly innocuous thing: dog, hotel, clown etc), + y (where y = possession, demons, the undead) = novel.” He acknowledges that this only applies to those commercial favourites, of course, whilst thankfully the real gems tend to avoid such easy accusations. But what can be a criticism can also be a redeemer – formulaic can be cosy, it can be like an old friend who always tells the same stories but you enjoy hearing them anyway, and you enjoy them doubly when you haven’t heard them for a while. That is how Christine feels.

The world of Christine is like the world of Carrie, of Needful Things, of Pet Sematary, of any number of others because, aside from the fact that most King books reside in the same fictional universe anyway, they also share a habitual tendency to dedicate themselves to the lives of the working class, of the oddballs, of the young. He writes these characters with almost obsessive desire to plant colloquialisms, to live out their ordinariness, their father who drinks beer and watches sports, their dog or cat loved by the children – and then the ground is ripe for extraordinariness.

Although there are weighty criticisms levelled at Christine, it remains undeniably an iconic novel in genre fiction, with cruel imagery to corrupt even the biggest Herbie fan. If you are intent on reading the majority of King in the coming years, as I am, Christine needs to be on your list. It is essential reading – so get in the car, because Roland D LeBay is driving and he’s not a patient man.

Finders Keepers, by Stephen King – Boring Bill Can’t Ruin This Ending

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There is a problem with Finders Keepers and its name is Bill Hodges. While other characters are exciting, despicable, and electrifying, Hodges manages to slow down the pace and the prose, he manages to stagnate the narrative. The characters around him begin to wade through his aura of mundanity and they too start to do things more slowly; as others are fighting for their lives, or committing atrocious crimes, Bill Hodges is thinking about how little he understands computers. And then he’ll spend some time thinking about that thing that happened a few years ago and the fact he eats salads but he doesn’t like them but he does.

Finders Keepers obligingly allows old Bill in about a third of the way into the novel. There he is, eating a goddamn salad, on his way to corner a criminal. King doesn’t seem to want to make him interesting, and it should be no particular surprise. It’s the rather dull characters that we imprint on, the ones who until now have led envious, but not exciting lives. Jake in 11/22/63 is no one very special, called upon to do something extraordinary. Mike in Bag of Bones is a pretty standard writer whose most enveloping mystery is his own life. But for Bill, who has led a seemingly self destructive, exciting buddy cop movie sort of life, and then retired, he has never really surpassed his own history. He’s perhaps a little rubbish at it all now. He is no Inspector Clouseau, but unentertainingly close. 

All that bitching and moaning out of the way, I still ended up loving Finders Keepers (big surprise there). When Boring Bill Hodges comes on the scene, it took me a long time to regain pace, but I’m glad I stuck with it. Morris Bellamy is a superb, cold and brutal villain, far more entertaining than Brady Hartsfield from Mr Mercedes, and he is a sadistic joy to read. Pete Saubers continually reminded me of Arnie Cunningham from Christine, but unlike Arnie, Pete seems to curb his obsession before it becomes possession.  Holly and Jeremy bore me tirelessly, sorry Bill, I find even your friends uninteresting.

Read Finders Keepers for its ending. Like Mr Mercedes, the finale to this novel closes a classic King young vs old narrative, before giving you all the reasons in the world to read the final book in the trilogy. If you, like me, felt apprehensive about the Hodges trilogy because it all seems too ordinary, the final book seems to be anything but ordinary. So read the books, even if you don’t like Hodges, because what’s coming is going to be worth it. 

Finders Keepers, by Stephen King – Time Travel and the Trouble With Present Tense

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I wasn’t a huge fan of Mr Mercedes, the first book in the Bill Hodges trilogy. For me, it lacked the twisted energy that I love about King, it seemed to be gruesome and disgusting in all the ways you wanted, but it never quite tied everything together into a driven narrative. King’s magic is in pulling you into a moving story, feeding you drugs of character and snippets of misdeeds, stepping down on the pedal, swerving and taking risks on bumpy routes, and you love it and you forget you’re a literary hostage.

If you’ve been sentient during the run-up to the release of the book, you will know the opening line, because it headed all of the press campaigns: “Wake up, genius.” But don’t let all the comparisons with Misery put you off – I’m convinced that’s a bit of press from Hodder & Stoughton to bring back the old fans and nothing more – because the only thing you really need is a passing knowledge of Mr Mercedes. So, enough of the intro, the question is: is it actually worth it?

I just finished Part 1. It’s taken me since the book’s release to get this far, not because of the book, but because I recently moved house at the same time as doing buckets of overtime at work. But now I’m settled in my new place with two dogs, two guinea pigs and two humans, so I’m starting to find more time for reading and for writing. Which means that I have the time to say this: Finders Keepers is, so far, bludgeoning Mr Mercedes over the back of the head with a page turning blunt instrument. 

The characters, the events, the world that I’m slipping into is all characteristic of the King I love, and same one I feared I had lost with the first Bill Hodges story. Morris Bellamy has been a grotesque joy to explore in Part 1, his place as the delusional, psychotic villain is firmly, deservedly earned and I’m beginning grow very, very afraid for what Part 2 has in store for those who may be meeting him. Pete Saubers, a young boy whose story begins over thirty years after Morris’s is courageous and resourceful, and completely likeable. It’s been said before, so I won’t tire you with some inane discussion on it, but King writes children not just as absorbing characters to root for, but also as complex, honest depictions of how a child is, how they secretly feel and how they make sense of the world around them. That these two characters share a narrative gives me excitement and total horror.

Time Travel

Finders Keepers, as the dust jacket will eagerly tell you, is a story set around three crucial years: 1978, 2009 and 2014 (do not read the dust jacket, read the story, there’s no magic in the dust jacket). Throughout Part 1, the narrative swaps between these years; we see our characters’ histories, their ideas, their families and, most importantly, their trajectories as they traverse their lives, ultimately knit together by small worlds. They will collide eventually and with each swap of decade, each paralleled thought and life echoed across the years, their collision becomes more worrying. 

The Trouble With Present Tense

Part 2 opens, “Kermit William Hodges […] drives along Airport Road” – well, shit, I think to myself. I don’t like present tense. Present tense asks something more of a reader, it asks that you take your attention and use it to push the narrative forward, if you stop caring, you so easily stop reading. With past tense however, past progressive if we’re getting a little technical, you are always playing catch up – if Hodge was driving, you now want to know what he did after he was driving, this opens up the field for the basics: where was he driving? Why? With whom? And what happened after that? But give that in present tense and the questions barely surface, you’re dealing with language that is very matter-of-fact and therefore needs to deliver excitement immediately – sadly, Bill Hodges driving and eating a salad ain’t cutting it so far. In my opinion, the best place for present tense is the opening to a noir, if only those first few sentences of Part 2 actually felt enough like a noir.


And so what comes next? This post has been sat on my dashboard for a couple of weeks and I’ve been continually backspacing and editing it, whilst making my way through Part 2 of the book. I can certainly say that the downbeat final paragraph of this post carries less weight as I’ve persevered, it is not all present tense and in fact the language is playful and the narrative increasingly complex, with delicious twists in time and perspective.


For prolific King readers: These Stephen King Connections Will Blow Your Mind

Christine, by Stephen King – Bullies and Retribution

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I’m a little over one hundred pages in. The world is building and the narrative engine is popping and grunting and coming to life. I, much like Arnie Cunninghham, will soon be possessed. 

 

Exceeding seven hundred pages, it would be hard for my discussion of the first hundred to really offer any spoilers beyond what a brief reading of the blurb would do, so you’ll be pretty safe reading on. The story goes like this: one day Arnie, a serially bullied and ridiculed pot faced teenager, spots an ugly, battered and broken, complete shit heap of a car for sale at the side of the road. At the time, Dennis, his only friend, tries to convince him not to waste all his wages on the car, to at least consider something better at half the price somewhere else – but Arnie is hooked and soon becomes worryingly obsessed with this rusted, eery Plymouth Fury.

If you have read Carrie, you’ll know how well King writes retribution. Power out of powerlessness, strength out of loneliness, the underdog takes a bite even if it may spell its last. Carrie, that abused girl, who turns on her bullies, I wonder if Arnie will do the same. His existence seems too painful, too miserable to miss out on some great retribution. He is the kid who is tripped in school hallways, who is punched and kicked and spat on for being different. But now something has him, it is an obsession with a car that creeps Dennis out, that is slowly changing Arnie into several different people. 

Will this darkness that Christine embodies take a hold of Arnie? Will retribution become cruel sport? I really hope so. 

Lightning over a dark horizon - Stephen King's "Revival"

Religion, Music and Drugs in ‘Revival’ by Stephen King

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I finished Revival  – and without taking the planned break at page 300 to write a post marking the milestone, whoops. Instead I found myself obsessing over the story and was helpless but to relentlessly tear through the rest of the novel at every available moment. What follows however is not a review, I’m simply not one to be trusted on that front, and so instead I present a discussion of what interests me most about Revival.

spoilers

On Religion

Stephen King is a believer in God. He told Rolling Stone magazine last year, “I choose to believe that God exists, and therefore I can say, ‘God, I can’t do this by myself. Help me not to take a drink today. Help me not to take a drug today.’ And that works fine for me.”

This particular use of belief as a tool for support or strength that King seems to have plays into the novel. Where faith parts with Jamie Morton, drugs and alcohol appear to take over; where faith parts with Charles Jacobs, obsession and amorality. Both are examples of one such supportive crutch being replaced with others. Whilst this may have been the doorway to a novel that battled faith against atheism, I was glad to see King refrain from doing so.

You’re not real!‘ I shouted. ‘You’re not real! It’s all a bunch of tricks! Damn you, Jesus! Damn you, Jesus! Damn you, damn you, damn you, Jesus!

Those words are spoken by our narrator as a young boy marking the end of his belief. I like to believe that King used damn intentionally, a nod to the pervasiveness of adoptive theological language in our everyday tongue, ironically even in the renunciation of faith itself. 

 

On Music and Drugs

I recently spoke to an old friend of Stephen King. He’s a musician from Chicago, who fell into addiction at the same time that King was climbing out of it. Michael McDermott’s music (think Springsteen, Chris Rea, Dylan, etc.) made such an impression on the novelist, in fact, that an essay penned by Stephen now takes pride of place on his website. I mention Michael because I saw him, for better and for worse, in the pages of Revival. Taken in by the rock’n’roll lifestyle, both our narrator and McDermott fell into addiction at a young age and subsequently saw big-time success slip away – and just like Jamie, McDermott is now clean and sober. 

Jamie’s story feels genuine because it echoes much of what Michael has told me in our conversations: the helplessness of addiction, the hypnosis of playing rock’n’roll live, and the longevity of love through it all. Did King draw from his own experiences of addiction and those of his friends then? It seems likely.

“Nobody lives one day at a time like a drug addict. You don’t think yesterday or tomorrow. You just think now, where is it? I was high much of the eighties, and I’m not a very reflective person, so it never crossed my mind that it was an existential thing, or that it was wasteful or anything else. It was just what I was doing that day.”

– Stephen King, Guardian interview, 2000

“I went to jail for it (I was facing 3 to 6 years in prison), that didn’t stop me. Ruined relationships, that didn’t stop me. Became a car thief, that didn’t stop me. Overdosed, that didn’t stop me. […] I would be asked to speak at churches and between services I would be outside in my car, drinking whiskey and snorting cocaine.”

– Michael McDermott, in a forthcoming interview on my Huffington Post UK blog.

“The future was looking brighter. I would score at the fair, find a place to crash – maybe at a local homeless shelter, maybe outside – and tomorrow I’d ride the big gray dog to Shytown. There was a musicians’ exchange there, as there is in most big cities, with players sitting around, telling jokes, swapping gossip, and looking for gigs. For some this wasn’t easy (accordion players, for example), but bands were always looking for competent rhythm guitar players, and I was a smidge more than that. By 1992 I could even play a little lead, if called upon to do so. And if I wasn’t too wrecked.The important thing was to get to Chicago and get a gig before Kelly Van Dorn put out the word that I was unreliable, and the pisshead just might.”

– Jamie Morton, Chapter 5, Revival

 

 

200 Pages in… Revival, by Stephen King [No Spoilers]

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This wasn't what I was expecting.

When last we spoke, I broadly told you about the narrative and the themes of the novel – pretty standard stuff, really, but I tried my best to make it interesting. Now, leaving classroom literature discussions behind, I’m another hundred pages in and – if you can find it in your hearts to forgive my slow reading at the moment – I’ll update you on this journey.

At this point in the book it’s difficult for me to discuss anything without giving certain elements away, but I shall try my best not to ruin a single moment for you, nonetheless.

First of all, King’s treatment of time in his narrative has been an exhilarating experience – and not something I remember in any of his other books that I’ve read*. Though I have found myself in brief states of confusion as to when exactly particular events take place in the novel, I’m pretty sure that’s down to me the reader – I often find only a matter of minutes in a busy office to read and so I’m not quite able to pick up where I left off. Why, precisely, I find it such an exciting treatment of the narrative is simple: I didn’t think he could do it, or at least do it successfully. And that’s, perhaps, one of those King techniques that he does so well, layering the surprise, the mystery, the chill. It’s the moment it dawns on you, the reality of the thing that has been only a whisper or a date past by in a diary. King had it planned, he’s conspiring against you and your expectations.

Second, it’s the main character. Sometimes a first person narrator can seem contrived, they appear to have a little too much authorial skill in telling their own life story, as though they are more interested in creating suspense than getting their history down. However, Jamie Morton is one of the successful ones, a believable narrator to his own life. Of course there are points at which, as the reader, you have to employ use of the contract you make with the author, the one that states that you will accept any elements that seem a little unlikely for the narrator to know as long as they don’t threaten the enjoyment or the consistency of the fictional world you’re in. And, I should add, those slightly unlikely elements really do usually need to be there. In other words, I trust a great writer to know exactly what they’re doing – so shut up and fall in love with the story – now, onto the next one hundred pages…

 
 
 
 

*It is a regrettably small list, but I’ll leave it here all the same:

  • Carrie
  • The Stand
  • Bag of Bones
  • Needful Things
  • 11/22/63
  • Mr Mercedes
  • The Long Walk (Richard Bachman)
  • On Writing (Non-fiction, admittedly, but unforgettable)

100 Pages in… Revival, by Stephen King [No Spoilers]

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kinghciar1One hundred pages in and I’m reminded of something: Stephen King is effortlessly absorbing. And he is a master craftsman in world-building. So, put those together and you find yourself often in Derry, Castle Rock, Dallas, or Harlow, without so much of a scuff of your feet as you hit the dusty road. After a slightly drab, though ultimately cathartic, stumble through Mr Mercedes, Revival has me hooked again, feeling the heat and smelling the electrified air.

Both in time and space, Revival‘s narrative takes over the steering wheel. In some novels, I find myself making a concerted effort to drive the narrative on with my attention in tact, identifying reasons to be intrigued and indulging in intricacies of language where plot offers only nuances of change. Now, that’s no negative aspect, as far as I’m concerned, because sometimes a story requires less adrenaline, less races of the heart, and more inspection of the finer details – it can often to be the clue to the whole thing being really rather beautiful – but it’s nice to get inside, feel the tug and shove of relentless shifts of time and place, and simply enjoy the ride, however bumpy it may be.

I was bound to love this story, as it turns out. Science, religion, music, sex, drugs and violence – it’s a list to entice most. And although I know there were some mediocre reviews for this book, I sit happily in the knowledge that the experience is subjective to the reader. I relate to the above topics, especially religion and drugs and music, so I’m completely invested in knowing how everything turns out.

My Uh-Oh moment so far? When King’s narrative monkey jumped on the shoulder’s of relative strangers. When that happens, you know something terrible, something utterly awful is going to happen. Well, it did.

And I loved it.