Spooky season at last
Greetings to an influx of new subscribers!
I drafted this more than two weeks ago—my apologies for the entirely unplanned hiatus! I’ve been working nearly every day for the past month, and it’s really taken a toll on me. I’ll try not to let such a long absence happen again, if only because I want to dunk on this take from LitHub.
A few weeks ago, when New York was baking in the kind of late-summer humidity that makes getting pushed under an oncoming G train an attractive prospect, I found myself reacting to memes about it being Spooky Season with an almost visceral anger. Yes, it was September and thus the official start of fall, but Spookiness is for sweaters and the switch to hot beverages, not sweating so much your shirt changes color. With the anger came the very grim, very real thought that this is how it’s going to be; warmer and warmer, with less and less respite from the heat.
But then the weather turned and it seemed impossible to feel sad about the temperature. I’m wearing a jacket right now! It’s a little chilly! There’s a little nip in the air! Sure, the chill is also accompanied by a dampness left over from the weekend’s tropical storms, but who minds? Certainly not me. In an effort to really lean into the autumnal vibe, I spent time last week rereading Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which then led my sister and I to re-watch two adaptations of it: Mike Flanagan’s 2018 Netflix series of the same name, and Jan de Bont’s 1999 movie The Haunting.
Jan de Bont is a perplexing choice of director for an adaptation of this book. I’m desperate for an oral history of The Haunting, mostly because I want to know exactly how much cocaine was circulating when the director of Lethal Weapon 3 came up as an option for adapting a claustrophobic horror novel from 1959. In de Bont's and first-time screenwriter David Self’s hands, the cramped, off-kilter rooms of Hill House become huge, echoing, hangar-like spaces. It’s hard to believe there was a textile magnate alive who could afford the enormous rooms of The Haunting’s Hill House. The horrors of the house are literal, rather than implied; ghostly children leave bloody footprints, furniture moves and traps its occupants, a hideous phantasm is defeated by religious imagery.
Don’t get me wrong - The Haunting is not a “good” movie, or a particularly good adaptation. It’s campy and fun, with an approach to terror that’s halfway between Grand Guignol and morality play. Eleanor Vance, played with thin-eyebrowed dourness by Lilli Taylor, is in this adaptation tenuously related to the evil patriarch who built Hill House, and her civilizing influence is what defeats him in the end—a self-sacrifice that saves her friends (though not Owen Wilson, alas) and the souls of the children haunting Hill House.
To a certain extent, Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series hits all the right notes of its source material. Instead of a supernatural investigation, Flanagan frames the haunting around a family, the Crain family, who have come to fix the house up and sell it for a profit. It’s demonstrably better than The Haunting, and scary as hell. (The reveal of the identity of the Bent-Neck Lady was both frightening and deeply, deeply sad. If you know, you know.)
Something about Flanagan’s version leaves me a bit cold, however, and I largely don’t think it’s his fault. The book is so claustrophobic, so saturated with the isolation of Hill House, which is placed below hills instead of on top of them, and which is composed of an outer track of windowed rooms and an inner track of windowless ones. The novel also hews to a single point of view, an unreliable one: Eleanor Vance, a woman who has spent the bulk of her life caring for a demanding mother who has recently passed away, and who flees her equally-domineering sister’s house in the early hours of the morning in a half-stolen car. Eleanor is looking for something, and thinks she’s found it in Hill House. Something has found her, certainly; the book is taut and fast-paced, and the nightmarish mood deepens with every day they spend there. We spend so long in her head that it all seems normal, and it isn’t until it’s too late that the reader realizes that something has gotten hold of Eleanor.
Instead of one protagonist, many; the expansion of the cast to an entire family is an attempt to externalize the visceral, interior unmooring that Eleanor experiences in the book, and it’s more or less successful as a series. (The show does suffer from Mike Flanigan’s terminal inability to let a monologue just end, already.) But the horrors are more or less Out There, in the house, and left to linger in the minds of the protagonists.
What I love about Jackson’s novel is that Eleanor’s hopes and fears and desires are so relatable: safety, purpose, friends, a place to call home. Even more relatable is that sometimes the home you find doesn’t have your best interests at heart. Maybe that’s the real spooky season: that one day, you’ll get everything you want, and it will try and kill you, through no fault of your own.
NB: In between drafting this post and actually, y’know, posting it, my talented friend Emily Hughes reviewed Elizabeth Hand’s A Haunting on the Hill and called it “A Fitting—And Frightening—Homage to ‘The Haunting of Hill House” for The New York Times (!!!!!)
WHAT I’M READING
I’ve had a mixed bag, book-wise recently. Other than finishing The Haunting of Hill House I’ve noped out of a couple of other books, including losing momentum on my self-help book from a couple of weeks ago and utterly failing at Alix Harrow’s Once and Future Witches. Nothing against the book itself; sometimes, you just can’t get into something. I’ve lent it to my sister and will try again after she’s read it. I’m currently reading the second in Freya Marske’s The Last Binding series, A Restless Truth. These books are tremendous fun, and even though I haven’t been able to immediately soulbond to the book in the way I did with A Marvellous Light, it’s still tremendous fun.
My first novel, Marrying In, is available for purchase on Kindle, Nook, and Kobo, and is coming soon to iBooks. If you’ve read it, consider leaving a review—that helps me and the book in the long run!
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