What to Read: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill HouseAt this time last year, I was teaching a high-school class called “Dreams and Nightmares: Literature of the Sublime and the Uncanny”. The first book we read was The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Although some of my lesson plans met with more success than others, I think that it was, on the whole, an excellent pedagogical tool. The haunted house is, of course, the ne plus ultra of the uncanny as defined by Sigmund Freud—the German term unheimlich basically translates to “un-home-like” or “un-homey”—so Jackson’s story of a house that is “not sane" was a fine place to begin our class. The book also gave us a chance to talk about Freud’s theory of repression, which several of the youngsters found compelling, and every adolescent pays close attention to the teacher when the topic of conversation is lesbians.

The children were not nearly as fascinated by the concept of folie á deux as I was, nor did they care at all about the Misses Moberly and Jourdain and their strange story’s impact on Jackson’s narrative. While I am always disappointed by a lesson plan that goes nowhere, I had been teaching long enough not to be terribly surprised. What did surprise me, though—shocked me, really—was the fact that none of my students seemed to find The Haunting of Hill House at all frightening because, in my opinion, The Haunting of Hill House is really fucking scary.

I am not alone in thinking this. When, after I first read this book, I asked Sarah Hand if she had ever read it, her immediate response was a guttural noise of terror. When I asked my mom, the very question made her shudder. My first reading of the book prompted a physiological reaction that remains, for me, unique: my eyes watered from fear. This was not, I must explain, weeping. It was something else altogether, more like a cold sweat pouring from my eyes than crying. I just finished reading the book for a third time, and it still gives me the shivers.

I’ve tried to figure out why it is that the children didn’t find this book scary. It’s possible that they have been desensitized by the unsubtle gore and cartoonish morbidity of popular horror. But I wonder, too, if Jackson’s narrative of dissolution—of a woman losing her identity—might not be be properly appreciated only by people of some maturity. Adolescents are in flux anyway, just figuring themselves out; perhaps the idea of loss of self is not all that terrifying to people who are only just developing a self. And, reading the novel for a third time, I am struck anew by the calm elegance of Jackson’s prose. Without ever raising her voice or resorting to extravagant language, she is able to communicate situations that are absolutely existentially wrong—states of being that simply should not be. It’s impossible to describe how chilling some of her passages are, because to describe them—to paraphrase—would rob them of their considerable power. To appreciate these moments, though, requires patience and careful reading—not necessarily the kind of reading employed by students who have to get to page 163 before the next class.

So, anyway, I still can’t say why the teens weren’t scared by The Haunting of Hill House but I continue to find it terrifying after multiple readings. It’s a mystery. I can say however, that I stand by original assessment: this book is really fucking scary.

April 24, 2020 | Permalink | Comments (9)

A Poem I Do Not Hate: The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver

The Truro Bear and Other Adventures: Poems and Essays

September 10, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sealing the Deal: The wet and wild world of selkie romance novels

It began with my friend Julie. At some point in our early adolescence, she started giving me her mom’s romance novels, helpfully dog-eared at the raunchy bits. My parents were into mystery and science fiction—my copy of Judy Blume’s Forever was probably the smuttiest book our house—so Julie’s supply of mass-market romances provided me with a welcome surfeit of sexually explicit scenes and situations.

The Flame and the Flower Now, decades later, I know that the books I was skimming for words like “shaft” and “thrust” were a direct result of the awesome success of  Kathleen Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower. First published in 1972, this novel reinvented romance fiction by making explicit what had previously been decorously implied—which is to say, penetration. While there are still readers who prefer a chaste romance, and while there are still publishers happy to cater to this audience, sales figures for The Flame and the Flower made it abundantly clear that most romance fans wanted action, and lots of it. The book was a bestseller as a hardcover original—most romances debut as paperbacks—and more than four million copies had been sold by 1978. The Flame and the Flower is still in print. It’s even available in electronic editions.

Woodiwiss’ breakthrough provided the formula for pretty much every romance I read in the ’80s. As I worked my way through Julie’s mom’s castoffs and rummaged through neighborhood bookshelves during babysitting gigs, I encountered the same scenario over and over again: Naïve young woman experiences sexual awakening when she succumbs to older, very powerful man, while older, very powerful man is domesticated—but not in any way emasculated!—by aforementioned naïve young woman. True love and lots of intercourse. This is the formula that helped romance dominate bookselling. (Romance consistently beats every other category in consumer publishing, and the genre has, in recent years, proven itself recession-proof, continuing to grow even in a shrinking economy.) This is also the formula that inspired the pejorative “bodice ripper”—a reference to both the bosom-heavy art on the cover and the many garments torn from women’s bodies within—and earned the genre the enduring scorn of literary critics and feminists.

Indeed, if you’re not a romance reader, your perception of—and disdain for, perhaps?—the genre is probably based on the typical romance of thirty years ago. To be sure, there’s plenty to hate about the form Woodiwiss pioneered. The Flame and the Flower itself makes for difficult reading—and not because it’s intellectually challenging. The characters and conflicts are thin, insipid copies of prototypes by Jane Austen and the Brontës. (I am not alone in recognizing this: Scholars of the genre have long identified these nineteenth-century authors as the progenitors of modern romance fiction.) Heather Simmons, the protagonist, is like Jane Eyre without Jane’s intelligence, passion, and self-reliance. Innocence is a vital component—perhaps the vital component—of her appeal as a heroine, but her much-discussed naiveté manifests mostly as the most exasperating kind of stupidity. This line is not the best example of the aforementioned dynamic, but it’s probably the most (unintentionally) hilarious: “Her eyes traveled downward innocently to his pants.” Brandon Birmingham (the man with the pants) is, like Rochester, a hero in the Byronic mold—Heather even compares him to Satan—but he’s only like Rochester if Rochester raped Jane while under the impression that she was a prostitute, which brings us to the most troubling feature of the subgenre Woodiwiss spawned.

For more than a decade after the publication of The Flame and the Flower, rape-as-a-plot-device was a nearly ubiquitous element of the successful romance novel. The best explanation for this phenomenon is that it was more socially acceptable—within the pre-twentieth-century settings of historical romance, but also within the modern contexts in which readers were consuming historical romance—for a man to assault a young woman than it was for that young woman to willingly have sex. In a chapter devoted to rape in Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan summarize the situation thusly: “[R]ape scenes gave the heroines permission to explore their sexuality without appearing to be sluts.”

I would like to say that I stopped reading romance novels when I realized how regressive they were, and that my budding feminist sensibility was shaped by my outrage at their persistent portrayal of women as victims, but that would totally be a lie. What really happened was that I could no longer take the tendency of romance authors to build a plot out of a stupid, easily avoidable misunderstanding that metastasizes. Also, I discovered Showtime After Hours Presentations, the nation’s premier source of softcore porn during my most hormone-addled years. My surreptitious reading was replaced by late-night cable viewing—with the sound turned way down to avoid waking my parents—and that was it for me and romance novels.

Sea Witch Until, one fateful day in 2008,  when I got a call from my friend, Sarah. She was standing in line at a drugstore, and she had, on impulse, plucked a novel from the rack. “You have got to get this book,” she told me. The novel Sarah recommended was Sea Witch by Virginia Kantra, and, just looking at the cover, I knew that this was not the romance novel as I remembered it. There’s no passionate clinch, no heaving bosoms—no bosoms of any kind, actually—simply a lone woman, naked and viewed from behind, rising from the ocean beneath a full moon. The novel’s opening line is just as arresting:  “If she didn’t have sex with something soon, she would burst out of her skin.” Clearly, this was a heroine who did not need a man to force her into sex. She just needed a man—as soon as possible.

The preceding was the original introduction (cut for length) of my latest piece for Bitch. You can read the published article here.

BONUS! Archival interview with Virginia Kantra

August 22, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Horror Fiction by Women: An Appendix

During the semester just past, I took a seminar on horror fiction by women. It was a great class by any measure—it was wonderfully well-organized, the professor pushed us in our writing, and my fellow students were sharp as tacks—but the reading list was particularly superlative. We started with Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which I had never read before. I got exciting new insights into one of my very favorite books ever, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. And I was introduced to the awesome Elizabeth Hand; after I read Generation Loss—an odd and satisfying thriller—I continued through much of her oeuvre. The high point for me was rereading Kathryn Davis’s Hell, a novel that should be on anybody’s list of contemporary American masterpieces. I chose Hell for my final paper, which allowed me to write about food refusal among medieval holy women, Victorian “fasting girls,” and Julie Kristeva. That alone would make me love this book, but it’s also brilliant and funny and creepy and heartbreaking.

Anyhow, as the semester has progressed, I’ve been compiling a kind of shadow syllabus composed of books that complement those we read or bring something new to the mix. This is that list.

O Caledonia O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

This book occupies the same space in my mind as We Have Always Lived in the Castle, although Barker is not nearly the misanthrope that Shirley Jackson is (few of us are, for which we should be thankful). I haven’t read this book in several years—I found the experience overwhelming, and I am still not sufficiently recovered to attempt it again—but I did write about it when my feel for the story was still fresh, and you can read that review here.  


Every Day Is Mother's Day and Vacant Possession Every Day Is Mother’s Day

Vacant Possession

by Hilary Mantel

Mantel has long struck me as an author who does not have the audience she deserves. I realize that this is largely because I am American, rather than British, but I will also note that the latest editions of these two books represent a second attempt to get us to read them. When they were first launched into the American market—along with Fludd—I discovered a new favorite author, and I was lucky enough to interview her at the time (you can read the interview here). I just reread both books, and they lived up to my memory. I imagined the interiors in a completely different way this time—which was pleasantly disorienting—but my sense that Mantel is able to perfectly balance the perfectly nasty with the utterly humane remains intact.  


Beyond Black Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

Having just revisited Every Day Is Mother’s Day and Vacant Possession, it occurs to me that Mantel is assaying, for a second time, much the same material she addressed in those earlier works. This is not a criticism. Beyond Black is a wondrously funny, moving, chilling work of fiction on its own merits, and Joan Acocella explains why much better than I could.


The Keep The Keep by Jennifer Egan

I read this novel soon after giving birth, but I feel confident that the eeriness I felt while reading was enhanced by—rather than generated by—the weirdness of mothering a new person and the attendant sleeplessness. This is a tour de force of postmodern Gothic, which is to say that Egan understands that the Gothic is inherently postmodern, and that the postmodern is inherently Gothic. Or something. I will say that Egan’s grasp of the uncanniness of telecommunications put me in mind of Dracula, and that it’s one of the topics we discussed in this interview.


Cold Earth Cold Earth by Sarah Moss

Ghost stories are, by definition, stories about the past refusing to stay in the past. Moss amplifies this dynamic by setting her story on an archaeological dig, the site of a lost Viking settlement. Cold Earth is a remarkably creepy story, and a very strong debut novel.


Affinity Affinity by Sarah Waters

Spiritualism has, at this late date, become a bit of a punchline—it was already a joke when Shirley Jackson wrote The Haunting of Hill House. But Waters understands the very human desire to connect, and that infuses her eerie narrative with pathos. Prepare to be chilled, and prepare to be heartbroken.


Honorable Mention

 The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

I’ve only read this once, right before it was published,  and what I remember is being anxious from start to finish. (NB: Fans of The Secret History seem to uniformly dislike Tartt’s second novel. Consider yourself warned.)

The Observations by Jane Harris

Kind of like if Jane Eyre was a prostitute before she landed at Thornfield.

In the Woods by Tana French

French has a very weird way with the police procedural—and I mean “weird” in pretty much every sense of the word.

My Happy Life by Lydia Millet

I have not been able to bring myself to read Emma Donoghue’s Room largely because I am still recovering from this.

More than You Know by Beth Gutcheon

When the subject is scary stories, I can’t not mention this book. I reviewed it here a few years ago.

May 9, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Today is Jennifer Egan Appreciation Day

A Visit from the Goon Squad Jennifer Egan just won the Pulitzer Prize for A Visit from the Goon Squad. If you have not read this book, you should. You totally should. You may also enjoy my piece on this amazing novel in the most recent edition of Women's Review of Books, and I would also like to recommend my interview with Jennifer Egan, conducted in 2007, when the also awesome The Keep, was published.

April 21, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (0)

A Poem I Do Not Hate: The Mermaid in the Hospital

She awoke  
to find her fishtail  
clean gone  
but in the bed with her  
were two long, cold thingammies.  
You'd have thought they were tangles of kelp  
or collops of ham.

"They're no doubt  
taking the piss,  
it being New Year's Eve.  
Half the staff legless  
with drink  
and the other half  
playing pranks.  
Still, this is taking it  
a bit far."
And with that she hurled
the two thingammies out of the room.

But here's the thing  
she still doesn't get—
why she tumbled out after them  
How she was connected  
to those two thingammies  
and how they were connected  
to her.

It was the sister who gave her the wink
and let her know what was what.
"You have one leg attached to you there  
and another one underneath that.  
One leg, two legs...
A-one and a-two...
Now you have to learn  
what they can do."

In the long months  
that followed,  
I wonder if her heart fell
the way her arches fell,
her instep arches.

Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill
Translator's Note

The Fifty Minute Mermaid

April 8, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (0)

A Poem I Do Not Hate: Why I Am Not a Painter

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have SARDINES in it."
"Yes, it needed something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. "Where's SARDINES?"
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.

Frank O’Hara

Selected Poems

April 7, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (0)

A Poem I Do Not Hate: To His Coy Mistress

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love's day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am'rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp'd power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Andrew Marvell

The Complete Poems

April 6, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (0)

A Poem I Do Not Hate: Black March

I have a friend
At the end
Of the world.
His name is a breath

Of fresh air.
He is dressed in
Grey chiffon. At least
I think it is chiffon.
It has a
Peculiar look, like smoke.

It wraps him round
It blows out of place
It conceals him
I have not seen his face.

But I have seen his eyes, they are
As pretty and bright
As raindrops on black twigs
In March, and heard him say:

I am a breath
Of fresh air for you, a change
By and by.

Black March I call him
Because of his eyes
Being like March raindrops
On black twigs.

(Such a pretty time when the sky
Behind black twigs can be seen
Stretched out in one
Cambridge blue as cold as snow.)

But this friend
Whatever new names I give him
Is an old friend. He says:

Whatever names you give me
I am
A breath of fresh air,
A change for you.

Stevie Smith

Collected Poems

April 5, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (0)

In Honor of National Poetry Month

8 Reasons Why I Hate Poetry

  1. It’s too short.
  2. Or it’s too long.
  3. It’s too fancy.
  4. Or it’s just words broken up into weird lines for no good reason.
  5. No dialogue.
  6. No narrative.
  7. No wizards, no space ships, no mystery-solving medieval monks.
  8. Performance poets. All of them.


April 4, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (3)