Saturday, October 15, 2016

Yet More Hauntings

Our leisurely ramble through the haunted houses of yesterday and today continues! Previous posts on the subject include:

The Haunting of Hill House

First, I've finally gotten around to reading Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. I was deeply impressed with the Robert Wise film, which I discussed here earlier this year, and had been meaning to read the book ever since. The film is, for me, the definitive haunted house movie; but now that I've read the book, I can offer the movie no greater compliment than to say that it faithfully and sensitively represents the spirit of the book, which is easily one of the best things I've ever read.

It's not so much a ghost story as a bad place story, which I'm beginning to think is really what a good haunted house story is all about.
"You will recall," the doctor began, "the houses described in Leviticus as 'leprous,' tsaraas, or Homer's phrase for the underworld, aidao domos, the house of Hades; I need not remind you, I think, that the concept of certain houses as unclean or forbidden – perhaps sacred – is as old as the mind of man. Certainly there are spots which inevitably attach to themselves an atmosphere of holiness and goodness; it might not then be too fanciful to say that some houses are born bad. Hill House, for whatever the cause, has been unfit for human habitation for upwards of twenty years. What it was like before then; whether its personality was molded by the people who lived here, or the things they did, or whether it was evil from its start are all questions I cannot answer. Naturally I hope that we will all know a good deal more about Hill House before we leave. No one knows, even, why some houses are called haunted."
There are various supernatural occurrences, though their ultimate cause is left unsettlingly ambiguous. The house's geometry is disturbing, misanthropic, hateful. It was designed by a sick, demented man. But what's truly terrifying is that the house is itself a monstrous and voracious organism. It's never made clear what order of "intelligence" (which is too anthropocentric a term) the house represents, however.
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.
Jackson's supreme mastery of style is exhibited most surely in her ability to convince you that, whatever is going on, it's much more worse than you imagine. A classic haunted house story, paranormal investigator and all; a delicate, sensitive exploration of a repressed soul; a humorous satire of heavy-handed spiritualism; a bone-freezing read for the small hours of the morning: The Haunting of Hill House is all these and more.

The Shining

If a good haunted house story is one that uses subtle brushes of style to build up an ineffable atmosphere of dread, an atmosphere that clumsy delineations and explanations would tear to shreds, then Stephen King can safely be said never to have written a good haunted house story. Still, The Shining is clearly a good story; the laws of inference therefore indicate that The Shining is not principally a haunted house story.

For me, it's really the story of a father and husband destroyed by his own small-mindedness and inner demons. There are a few creepy moments, but King simply doesn't know how not to explain every supernatural occurrence in precise detail by the end. That's okay, I think. The truly disturbing events are those that occur entirely within Jack's sane mind, when he soliloquizes on his own life and doggedly lies to himself about who he is and what he has done. The ghosts' making him into a monster is merely a reflection of what he had done to himself and his vision of reality, freely and willingly, before ever setting foot in the Overlook Hotel. As a father and husband with his own inner compromises, I found that it all hit a little close to home. It got under my skin, which, I suppose, is what a good novel does.

It had been a long, long time since I'd read any Stephen King. Like Fletcher Vredenburgh, I got into him when I was in junior high; I read The Stand first, I think, and then moved on to various other things, such as Carrie, Misery, The Eye of the Dragon, The Dark Half, and The Dead Zone. I recall being unimpressed with King's portrayal of good and evil, his plot resolutions (in his longer novels), and his frequent conflation of seaminess with wickedness. He has a way of reducing people to ugly, brutal caricatures, and at the time I found it so dehumanizing that I eventually decided – as a fourteen-year-old! – to leave it aside for a future date. Well, I suppose that date has now come.

I find myself kind of wanting to read Dr. Sleep now. If it shows up at the county library, I just might! I've also been wanting to read his Dark Tower books for some time. A buddy of mine has them, so that's probably next on my list.

The Shining

Of course, I haven't been looking for haunted houses in books alone. For years I've been meaning to watch Kubrick's version of King's novel, and for years I've refrained from it, as I wanted to read the book first. Somehow I managed to hold out all this time, despite being a great admirer of Kubrick's other films, and despite somehow becoming aware of the entire plot, down to numerous scenes, by subconsciously absorbing it from the universal cultural Id.

I can see why King doesn't like Kubrick's vision. It is, nevertheless, sublime. The members of the Torrance family are reduced to opaque archetypes enacting some kind of horribly eternal play in a snowbound universe that they alone inhabit, out of space, out of time. It reminds me of 2001: A Space Odyssey more than any of Kubrick's other films. It also makes me think of Ingmar Bergman's surreal horror film, Hour of the Wolf, and Tarkovsky's Solaris.

Perhaps the less I say about The Shining, the better. If you're looking for a psychological thriller, a scary ghost story, or a point-by-point adaptation of a King novel, you'll probably be disappointed. If you're looking for a quiet, unsettling island universe existing unto itself and violating conventions of time and space like a cosmic M. C. Escher design, you've come to the right place, my friend.

The Conjuring 2

I suppose I should mention this one, too. Yes, I watched it, and, yes, I thought it was okay, though not quite so good as the first one, which I also thought was okay but not great. This one committed the exact same errors as the first installment, but more so, and with fewer memorable scenes (like that clap scene, brrr). It's genuinely scary, with good production values, an intelligent script, a realistic texture, and an ending that's actually kind of positive and inspiring. Oh, and toys. Creepy, creepy toys. (What is it with creepy toys these days? The real Annabelle was a Raggedy Ann doll.) Anyway, it's a good Halloween movie, but nothing to compare with The Haunting or The Shining.

This is neither here nor there, but the aftermath scenes in both Conjuring movies make me think of the little picnics and gatherings they always ended stories with on Rescue 911.

Local Hauntings

A couple weeks ago I discussed The Haunting of Hill House with a friend of mine, a psychology professor. He told me of a house in town that he'd been told is haunted. Bad things happen to people who live there, he said, and no one stays there long. This is all hearsay. But it's up the street from where we both live, so I went to check it out on the way home from work. It's a small, rather run-down one-story house with an oddly convoluted floor plan. Is it haunted? Hard to tell from my pick-up truck.

My own house, which was built around 1901 and actually bears some resemblance to the house in the first Conjuring movie, has a filled-in well in the back corner of the lot. The spot is visible merely as a pit of soft earth. I've always found it a bit unsettling.

There's a small pioneer cemetery at the end of the block, within sight of our upstairs windows, inhabited mainly by nineteenth-century casualties of arrow wounds and bullet holes. I've been told, however, that there are graves sprinkled here and there around the entire block...

Speaking of arrow holes, my best friend from the town where I grew up, a few towns over from where I now live, has an ancestral family member who was killed by arrows...and his family still has the shirt. It's a white shirt with little bloody arrow holes. His grandmother, who was born in the nineteenth century and lived to be well over one hundred, resided practically next door to us, and one day I was taken into a small, slightly stuffy back room of her house to see the family artifacts. Old photographs stared down on us from the walls. That was an unsettling place.

Last But Not Least

In conclusion, while we're on the subject of paranormal investigators and creepy things, I'd like to mention that John Linwood Grant of greydogtales fame, together with Sam Gafford and Travis Neisler, are starting up a quarterly print (print? yes, print!) magazine called Occult Detective Quarterly, a revival of the kinds of stories that feature William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki and his various relatives and descendants. You can check out their Kickstarter campaign here.


  1. Great post, Mr. Ordóñez. I specially like the part about local hauntings. It's strange how the past remains close to us...

    1. Thanks! It sometimes seems like everyone knows someone who has experienced some sort of haunting...

  2. For haunted house tales, nothing comes close to either version of Hill House.
    I never really thought of The Shining as a haunted house story, though it clearly is. Instead, my focus was on the Torrances. When he did script a straight haunted house story, Rose Red, it was abysmal.

    I agree with you re: King's caricatures. His dislike of certain types of people damages otherwise good books like Insomnia and Bag of Bones. Still, he was such an important part of my adolescence, I find myself drawn back to him every few years.
    I don't like Kubrick's movie. I just rewatched it and found it too cold and inert. Beautiful framed and shot, but lifeless. Nicholson's character was a twitchy time bomb from scene one disallowing any sort of real suspense. He's going to try to kill everyone, it's just a question of when. Maybe if I hadn't read the book first I could view it like a Argento movie - like a nightmare with some starkly terrifying images but too little coherence.

    I joke with my wife about which houses around ours could be haunted. Mostly, it's late 19th cent. ones, but once in awhile there's a much newer house that seems like it's angles are all wrong and something could conceivably be gnawing away at its heart.

    1. The other day I pointed our town's "haunted house" out to my kids; they said it didn't look haunted, which apparently means that it isn't old, ornate, and/or ruinous.

      One of the things I like about Hill House is that its hauntedness doesn't exactly come from all the bad things that have happened there. It seems to have been bad from the beginning. I wonder if there are any good haunted house stories set in new houses. (Putting an Indian burial ground underneath is cheating!)

  3. The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons. King wrote about it in Danse.