Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A Very Literary Halloween, Part 4 - The Haunting of Hill House

For this year's celebration of the macabre, I'm journeying through American horror fiction by revisiting some of its greatest writers. For All Hallows' Eve, we've saved perhaps the best for last - "The Haunting of Hill House," Shirley Jackson's definitive haunted house novel.

Legend has it that when screenwriter Nelson Gidding visited Shirley Jackson about adapting "The Haunting of Hill House" into a movie, he suggested that the ghostly events in the story were actually products of the protagonist's nervous breakdown. Jackson told him that was a nice idea, but that the book was definitely about the supernatural. And so, through Jackson's willingness to embrace genre, what could have been forgotten as trite "psychological fiction" quickly became one of the most influential Gothic horror novels of the 20th century.

The plot is straightforward, almost elemental. A researcher of the paranormal, Dr. Montague, invites three strangers to stay at Hill House over the summer. He explains that numerous tragedies have unfolded at the isolated mansion over the decades, and theorizes that the house is a "place of contained ill will." Unfortunately, that proves to be all too accurate...

Jackson's novel isn't the first haunted house story, but it's unique in that it deftly balances eerie happenings with the emotional states of its characters, a mix of the paranormal with creeping insanity which has influenced everything from "The Shining" to "Sinister." Also helping set "The Haunting of Hill House" apart is Jackson's taut, evocative prose, which sinks its hooks in from the very first lines:
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.
That passage is so good that you can excuse its reuse in the book's ambiguous, unsettling ending. By most accounts, home was a prison for the Jackson, and "The Haunting of Hill House" presents a nightmare scenario - even death may not be an escape.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

A Very Literary Halloween, Part 3 - The Dunwich Horror

For this year's celebration of the macabre, I'm journeying through American horror fiction by revisiting some of its greatest writers. Let's look at a classic short story from H.P. Lovecraft, "The Dunwich Horror."

Lovecraft was a master at crafting stories of cosmic fear, where man is dwarfed by forces which can scarcely be understood, much less controlled. But while that lack of agency makes for an unsettling milieu, it can also lead to some pretty passive protagonists. The characters in "The Call of Cthulhu" and "At the Mountains of Madness" don't really do all that much, aside from learning about unspeakable horrors.

"The Dunwich Horror" is a different kind of tale, one that is much closer to the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG. There are heroes (the wizened Professor Armitage), there are villains (the unnatural Wilbur Whateley), and they actually come into conflict with one another on occasion. The story even has a cinematic climax and twist ending, which, while perhaps not as unique as Lovecraft's other work, are much more accessible to a mainstream audience.

As such, it's not surprising that "The Dunwich Horror" has been adapted multiple times, including a feature film starring Dean Stockwell. My personal favorite is this 1945 episode of "Suspense":

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Links: Fireside Mystery Theatre

The podcast is the perfect vehicle for audio drama, and Fireside Mystery Theatre is one of my favorites. The show is taped live every month at the Slipper Room, a burlesque club in Manhattan, and each episode features a slew of spooky stories done in the style of old-time radio drama:

During the summer, Fireside Mystery Theatre also posts dramatic readings of classic horror stories. If you liked my post about Ambrose Bierce's "Can Such Things Be?," you also might like this reading of "An Unfinished Race" and Charles Ashmore's Trail," stories which portend Bierce's own unexplained disappearance...just be sure to mind the shadows:

Sunday, October 08, 2017

A Very Literary Halloween, Part 2 - Can Such Things Be?

For this year's celebration of the macabre, I'm journeying through American horror fiction by revisiting some of its greatest writers. This entry focuses on "Can Such Things Be?", a classic collection of supernatural horror stories by Ambrose Bierce.

If you've ever read "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," you know it ends in the oldest horror cheat in the book. (Spoiler alert! - the protagonist's incredible escape from the noose turns out to be a hallucination, imagined in the moments before death). Bierce's twist seems hackneyed now, of course, but it was pretty bold in its time.

In comparison, the ghostly tales collected in Can Such Things Be? have held up nicely. Many of them interleave multiple points of view, gradually building in weirdness as the story progresses. "The Secret of Macarger's Gulch" is an early example; its narrator's terror at being haunted by mysterious beings in a dark house is bad enough, but the real horror comes "[s]ome years afterward," when an explanation of the secret is finally provided.

Dawning realization is also the theme of "The Moonlit Road," but this time, it's on the part of the reader. The three narrators in the story each have their own perspective on how a ghost of a strangled woman came to stalk a man on a moonlit road, but even the ghost does not know the whole truth. "The Moonlit Road" is a clear precursor to "In a Grove," on which Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon" is based, but the end result in Ambrose Bierce's story is decidedly more bitter and cynical.

My favorite in the collection is probably "The Death of Halpin Frayser," a daring take on the traditional ghost story. The setup is pretty traditional (a drifter comes face to face with his dead mother in a dark wood), but Bierce spins it into a far more ambiguous tale. The unlikely climax, provided by two detectives investigating the drifter's death, takes place in broad daylight and yet is utterly disturbing.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

A Very Literary Halloween, Part 1 - Metzengerstein, Morella, and The Oval Portrait

For this year's celebration of the macabre, I'm journeying through American horror fiction by revisiting some of its greatest writers. Today, we'll start with a look at three lesser-known short stories from the granddaddy of them all, Edgar Allan Poe.

America was in its infancy during Edgar Allan Poe's career, so it's not surprising that his work often reincarnated the Old World into the New.  In "Metzengerstein," Poe's first published short story, the two great houses of Berlifitzing and Metzengerstein form the backdrop for a tale about a man and a most unusual horse. The story co-opts the trappings of eastern European noble identity - barons, castles, and counts - to make a larger point about the immortal soul and the things that can sicken it.

A later Poe story, "Morella," digs even deeper into antiquity. It starts off with a quote from Plato ("Itself, by itself, solely, one everlasting, and single") and then uses some more Greek to hit you over the head with the theme ("Παλιγγενεσια of the Pythagoreans"). The unnamed narrator in "Morella" becomes haunted by his daughter's uncanny resemblance to his dying wife. At the end of the story, he makes a startling discovery - startling only to him, that is, thanks to the foreshadowing provided for the reader.

Poe examined metempsychosis once again in "The Oval Portrait," which also contains one of his most atmospheric frame stories. In this one, the narrator confronts an eerie, seemingly alive painting in a gloomy chateau, and then learns the sad tale behind its creation. If you believe art can be stronger than death, and that love can be stronger than art, then you will appreciate the transfiguration presented here.

"Were I called on to define, very briefly, the term 'Art,' I should call it 'the reproduction of what the Senses perceive in Nature through the veil of the soul.' The mere imitation, however accurate, of what is in Nature, entitles no man to the sacred name of 'Artist.'"