Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
More a fan of the idea of the haunted house, perhaps, than one who aspires to actually visit such places, even in fiction, I have, nevertheless, visited a few, written a couple of novels in which haunted houses are prominently featured (Mystic Mansion, the sequel to my first novel, Saturday’s Child, and The Madhouse, a stand-alone work, all of which are available on amazon.com and can be reached--hint, hint--by clicking the blue links associated with their titles), and a several-article series, available right here on Chillers and Thrillers, concerning “How to Haunt a House.” The haunted houses I’ve visited are a dilapidated and apparently (but not, as it turned out, really) abandoned house in a field of tall grass, the Winchester Mystery House in Los Gatos, California (which was partly the inspiration for the haunted house in Stephen King’s Rose Red televisions series), and the Disneyland Haunted Mansion.
As a fan of the idea of the haunted house, I was particularly interested in reading King’s insights and observations concerning the haunted house stories he’s both written (The Shining and, in a way, ‘Salem’s Lot) and read, two of which, the one in Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House and Anne Rivers Siddons’ The House Next Door, are standouts in the genbre, King argues. The first, he believes, presents readers “with a history--a sort of supernatural provenance,” and the other “gives” readers “the provenance itself.”
After quoting the opening paragraph of Jackson’s novel, King dissects it to show just “how many things this single paragraph does.”
Jackson’s paragraph reads:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.King’s comments take up a paragraph about as long:
All I really want to do is point out is how many this single paragraph does. It begins by suggesting that Hill House is a living organism; tells us that this live organism does not exist under conditions of absolute reality; that because. . . it does not dream, it is not sane. The paragraph tells us how long its history has been, immediately establishing that historical context that is so important to the haunted-house story, and it concludes by telling us that something walks in the rooms and halls of Hill House. All this in two [sic] sentences (“Horror Fiction,” Secret Windows: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing, 91).Siddons’ novel, which “could have been subtitled ‘The Making of a Haunted House,’” goes Jackson’s one better, King thinks. No human characters set foot inside Siddons’ haunted house until the novel’s last fifty pages, but its next-door neighbors, Walter and Colquitt Kennedy, are affected by the residence: “We see their lives and their way of thinking change as a result of their proximity to the house,” King observes (92).
At the outset of the novel, the house has yet to be built, but, as soon as the domicile is completed, “Dionysian change,” it is apparent, King says, “is coming to the Apollonian suburb where hitherto there has been a place for everything and everything [has been] in its place” (93). The house is introduced through its impression upon Colquitt:
I drew my breath in at it. It was magnificent. I do not as a rule care for contemporary architecture, [but] . . . this house was different. It commanded you, somehow, yet soothed you. It grew out of the penciled earth like an elemental spirit that had lain, locked and yearning for the light, through endless deeps of time, waiting to be released. . . . I could hardly imagine the hands and machinery that would form it. I thought of something that had started with a seed, put down deep roots, grown in the sun and rains of many years into the upper air. In the sketches, at least, the woods pressed untouched around it like companions. The creek enfolded its mass and seemed to nourish its roots. It looked--inevitable.The book is divided into three sections, each one telling the story of a different family of the house’s residents, the Harralsons, Buddy and Pie; the Sheehans, Buck and Anita; and the Greenes, Norman and Susan. It would be unfair to share any more of the story’s plot, but it should go without saying, perhaps, that any haunted-house novel that captures the attention and earns the respect of a horror maestro of King’s reputation deserves a read.
What I’m more interested in, at the moment, is the introductions that the writers give their haunted houses. As I argue elsewhere, a grand entrance is important to establish new characters (and protagonists, especially); the same is true for places that, in effect, themselves become like characters--and a specific type of character, at that: the antagonist. Haunted houses are typically evil places, and, as such, they will pit themselves against those who are foolish enough to take up residence beneath their roofs and within their walls. King does a fine job of dissecting Jackson’s opening paragraph, but he doesn’t have much to say about the haunted house in Siddons’ novel. In its own way, the introduction of “the house next door” is effective in seizing the reader’s attention as it also simultaneously spotlights the new house on the block.
The house, Colquitt implies, is breathtaking, not so much for its architectural style, but for its effect upon the viewer; the house makes Colquitt feel a certain way: “commanded,” yet also “soothed,” as if the house exercises, by its mere presence, a hypnotic or spellbinding effect upon anyone who would look upon it. It is “like an elemental spirit,” but, at the same time, it is also like a plant that, seeded by “hands and machinery”--that is by human design and technology, rather than by nature--establishes “deep roots” and seems one with the “woods” that surround it, even as it is “nourished” by a “creek.” The “elemental spirit” is, perhaps a dryad, and an evil one at that, which takes up residence in the strange vegetative abode. The dryad is the perfect entity to bring to “the Apollonian suburb” as King calls the haunted house’s setting “Dionysian change.”
Another example, justly famous, of a writer’s introduction of his story’s haunted house to his readers is the opening chapter of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”:
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was--but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me--upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain--upon the bleak walls--upon the vacant eye-like windows--upon a few rank sedges--and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees--with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveler upon opium--the bitter lapse into everyday life--the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart--an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it--I paused to think--what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble ; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled luster by the dwelling, and gazed down--but with a shudder even more thrilling than before--upon the remodeled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.So many critics have dissected and analyzed this paragraph that it need not be done again. Suffice it to say that Poe’s description of the place embodies it, for Poe, in writing of the dwelling’s “vacant eye-like windows,” and, indeed, what Walter Evans sees as the “‘bleak’ cheeks, huge eyes. . . ‘rank’ and slightly bushy mustache, and perhaps even ‘white trunks of decayed’ teeth” of the story’s protagonist, Roderick Usher himself (“‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ and Poe’s Theory of the Tale,” reprinted in Short Story Criticism). The house not only looks like its owner, who will fall mentally, into madness, as the house has already begin to fall into physical ruin, but, like Siddons’ haunted house, it has an almost palpable effect upon those who encounter it: “with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit,” the narrator admits, adding, “There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart--an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it--I paused to think--what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?”
Like Jackson and Siddons, in introducing his haunted house, Poe both hooks his readers while, at the same time, making his haunted house forever--well, haunting!