Guest Review: The Haunting of Hill House


The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Publisher: Penguin Classics, 182 pages
Format: paperback
Source: Guest review

Hi Everyone,

Today we are hearing from one of our dedicated readers, Allegra Johnson, who is offering her thoughts on a classic ghost novel. Thank you, Allegra, for sharing your insights!

From Allegra:

My path to reading The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, a long-time favorite of mine, really started with a movie—a bad movie at that.  I’m not above saying that I saw this movie with a friend primarily because Liam Neeson played the doctor and we spent the movie ogling and giggling.  The movie seemed pretty cheesy with a decidedly hokey ending, but it planted a seed in my mind.  The way the producers portrayed the house, its dark paneling and foreboding shots, caught my imagination.

The book begins with a description of the house as an entity in and of itself—alive, dark, and evil.  It hungers for something, perhaps companionship?  It’s interesting that only our main character, Eleanor, seems to feel the underlying pressure and need.  But I’m jumping ahead here.  I went home and told my mom that the movie was a disappointment and she suggested I watch the older version of the film.  We rented the video and while it was  significantly better than its remake—especially the ending—it still lacked something.

The image of the monstrous Victorian house still in my mind, I did what a teenage kid with way too much summer free time would do:  I turned to the book version.

The narrator of this story is Eleanor Vance, a thirty-two year old woman who spent most of her adult life taking care of her mother, who comes to Hill House with two other guests at the invitation of a Doctor Montague.  The doctor wants to study paranormal activity in the house and has chosen his fellow guests, Theodora, a bright and carefree young woman with some psychic ability, and Luke, a future heir to the mansion, to help him in his study.

Eleanor is the only of these characters who has no life in the outside world.  Caring for her mother enveloped her entire being, it’s entirely who she was.  Eleanor states many times that she has been waiting for something to happen to her, waiting for her life to begin and “could not remember ever being truly happy in her adult life; her years with her mother had been built devotedly around small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness, and unending despair.”  In short, Eleanor knows only what it is to be needed and Hill House needs her.

After a series of escalating paranormal encounters, it becomes clear that the house is interested entirely in Eleanor.  There are no bogeymen to jump out at the reader from around corners, or any gruesome slaughters, but rather a sense of fear and quiet intensity building to the conclusion of the story.  There are, of course, the mandatory “bumps in the night” because what’s a haunted house without those?

There is no doubt that the house is both haunted and evil.  But even at the end, I find myself wondering about Eleanor.  Is she acting of her own volition?  Like the house, is she insane?  There are moments and thoughts that suggest she is in control of herself and actions.  Alternately, is Eleanor possessed by the house?  Claimed by its sinister presence?  Or, is Eleanor the unwitting cause or source of all the paranormal events surrounding the house?  The author seems to leave the answers to the interpretation of the reader.

From beginning to end, I found the story to be absorbing and every now and then my mind wanders back to its ambiguous climax…What was going on with Eleanor?

The Blob Monster

Hi, guys.

My apologies. I know you have been anticipating the next installment of ghost novel reviews, which is now officially overdue.

I was away all weekend at a family reunion in Squirrel, Idaho–beautiful, idyllic spot–and then arrived home with a virus. You know: sore throat, headache, that swirling feeling. To get an idea of how I look, at least on the inside, check out this picture.



The good news is that each day is better, so I look forward to posting my review soon.

Thanks for your patience!





Are Men and Women Different?

Or Are Women and Men the Same?

Amanda Bonner (Katherine Hepburn) declares in the movie Adam’s Rib, “There’s no difference between the sexes. Men, women, the same.”

As for me, I didn’t know that men and women were different until 1991. I conceived my daughters, born 1982 and 1986, via autogamy.

Okay. Perhaps I exaggerate.

Chalk it up to my upbringing—Erickson-Piaget-Transactional-Analysis-I’m-Okay-You’re-Okay-Nurture-Trumps-Nature discussions at the table of two socially progressive parents. Added to that, my firstborn, Hillary, had only one request for her third birthday—a shiny red dump truck

(Mind you, this all predates those planetary Mars/Venus pop culture theories.)

At any rate, I came to believe in 1991 that women and men are different. In October of that year, a firestorm swept my community, razing 2,587 buildings and killing 25 people. During the conflagration, women and men reverted to some latent primordial directive. Women gathered the young-uns and spirited them to a safe nest far from the scene, clucking all the while.

Men, on the other hand, ducked under the yellow caution tape back into the fire zone from which they’d been evacuated hours before. Then, under cover of darkness, they slipped through the streets to their homesteads where they performed guard patrol and sprayed their roofs with water.

Different, huh?

After that, I began to wonder if other differences existed.

I bring this up because one of my esteemed writer friends (a male) bewails the fact that the protagonist of my novel Moonlight Dancer does not tread the clearly defined Hero’s Journey a la Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler. It’s difficult for her, my protagonist, to march this linear course when she is pulled in multiple directions—namely, a 16th century ghost with an agenda and a lover at odds with the ghost.

But Hero’s Journey is the watchword on everyone’s lips these days. Don’t get me wrong, I love Hero’s Journey novels. The Outsiders, The Giver, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle come to mind—well-wrought, linear and logical. I also believe female protagonists can follow this journey. Jane Eyre fits the profile nicely.

But what if there’s another journey, a more circular Heroine’s Journey? One of my MFA teachers, Louis B. Jones, described such an episodic, circular narrative. He cited To Kill a Mockingbird with Scout’s episodes of fighting injustice, losing innocence, gathering knowledge until the circles—her experiences and Boo’s fate—once again intersect. I think we could include Alice Hoffman, Jodi Picoult, and Luoise Erdrich in this circular scaffolding.

Interestingly, when I challenged my writer friend with this idea, he said I was wrong on multiple levels not the least of which was that Scout was not even the protagonist, Atticus was. Egads! He and I almost came to blows, just as Scout was wont to do.

What do you think? Before you decide, check out this cool male/female story analysis by author Jennifer Crusie—Linear vs. Patterned: A Brief Discussion of Structure. She offers some great insights on the writing process.

Chime in. Don’t be shy. Are there male and female journeys? Are women and men different?

At the conclusion of Adam’s Rib, Katherine Hepburn concedes, “Maybe there is a difference, but it’s a little difference.” Spencer Tracy replies, “Vive la difference!”

Book Review: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle


The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

Publisher: Harper Collins, 562 pages
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased

What it’s about:

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle begins, unexpectedly, in 1952 Busan with a secret night meeting between a US serviceman and a Korean herbalist. The service man offers penicillin in exchange for poison. The herbalist says, “I think here we trade one life for one life” (5).    

The prologue ends without naming the serviceman, and chapter one begins with Edgar Sawtelle’s grandfather and the founding of the family businessa unique breed of dog sought after by dog lovers throughout the Great Lakes region that has been scientifically bred for personality and intelligence rather than for physical traits. These dogs are the perfect friends for Edgar, who was born mute. Edgar lives with his parents in an idyllic rural setting where life is good until it isn’t. One day Edgar’s uncle comes to stay and work on the farm. Later, when Edgar’s father falls ill and dies, Edgar and his mother Trudy find themselves mired in sadness. In the aftermath of Edgar’s father’s death, Edgar’s uncle Claude makes himself an indispensable part of the householdhelping in the kennels, nursing his mother through a bout of pneumonia, raising his mother’s spirits.

While feeding the dogs, Edgar is visited by a ghost appears silhouetted by “hundreds of raindropsthousands—suspended for a heartbeat in the lamplight” (235). The ghost tells Edgar he was poisoned, and he demands revenge. Edgar must find his proof and search his soul to find the right course to take.

Meanwhile a terrible accident occurs, after which Edgar and his faithful dog Almondine go on the run, traversing miles and miles of forest, on a coming-of-age quest that will change him and his family forever.  

What I thought:

I wasn’t going to read this book.

Actually, I was intrigued by the mute, dog-whisperer protagonist until I heard the whole Hamlet re-make discussion.

I have nothing against remakes. In fact, I like them. I’m totally down with these:

Clueless (Emma)

Here On Earth (Wuthering Heights)

Bridget Jones’s Diary (Pride and Prejudice) Okay, not up to the original, but still fun.

West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet)

So, Hamlet. The reason I didn’t relish a fictional re-imagining had to do with the dreaded march toward mayhem, “Of deaths put on by cunning,” as Fortinbras laments.

You would not envision someone who loves ghost novels as an emotional coward, but I am one.

Naturally, I did the cowardly thing—I read the ending first. That survived, I was able to go forth and enjoy the book.

And enjoy I did. The added bonus was the ghost. I wasn’t expecting that much verisimilitude, but the ghost enabled me to add the novel to my ghost novel reviews. Lucky you, my devoted readers.

Dreamstime photo

Wroblewski’s re-imagining of Hamlet is skillfully done, yet he does so much more. There’s an interesting interview with the author in the back in which he protests the reduction of his entire story to Hamlet, and I quite agree. Edgar Sawtelle is rich with character and motive and love and setting. The modern day Trudy feels more human and maternal than Gertude; Claude is as deliciously cunning as Claudius. But the careful reader can find touches of mythology and Greek tragedies as well.

Wroblewski so deftly handles the depth and interaction of character that the only time I found myself wandering from the thrust of the story was when the mute protagonist Edgar wanders in the forest. And wanders. And wanders some more. That old saggy middle problem. One could probably chop out ten pages in this section to the betterment of the book. In Hamlet, this plot point takes place offstage.

But I found myself riveted by the other 552 pages. And that’s saying a lot, particularly in an era when agents and publishers extol manuscripts of 90,000 words, roughly 325 pages.

Overall, I highly recommend The Story of Edgar Sawtelle for its poignant exploration of the family-versus-self polarity. And for the very human interplay of love, loyalty and loss.