Tag Archives: Susan Hill

The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson

A “10 sentences or less” busting piece.

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Before I was 10 we moved to a place on the Mediterranean into a huge house that came with my Dad’s job at the time.  Until then my younger sister and I had always shared a bedroom, but this new place was large enough for us to have our own rooms at the top of the house in the attic space where there was also a bathroom, another spare bedroom and access to our 2 roof terraces.  Not long after we moved in, my sister complained of not being happy in her room.  Then she talked of waking in the night with someone holding her hand, but there was never anyone there.  This freaked us both out enough for us to move back downstairs and share a room next to our brother.  Neither of us liked going back up there after that.  I was recently reminded of this episode in my childhood when reading Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.  A similar late night hand-holding experience affects one of the main characters when she is feeling particularly vulnerable.

Generally speaking I don’t read creepy books, I’m too easily spooked and I’ll be honest, this story made me feel uneasy at times.  The titular house is unpleasant and designed to confuse, the characters are susceptible to suggestion and disturbance of mind creating an shared experience where both character and reader live through the nightly hauntings and horrors served up by this place.  It’s this psychological element that makes the tale of Dr. Montague and his guests at Hill House, gathered there to investigate and make sense of the other-worldly goings on, all the more disturbing and chilling.  What Jackson achieves with her writing is a feeling of suspense built on the fear and unease her characters sense from the house.  Fragile Theodora seems particularly prone to these perceptions of something ghostly.  The eventual suspicion and distrust that builds between the characters adds to the tension.

This story is similar in feel and sentiment to books by Susan Hill.  Both women are masters at writing about the supernatural in an unsettling, non-violent, non-gory way, leaving the reader to wonder and marvel at how the power of suggestion can unhinge the mind to such an extent.  Reading this book has finally made me realise, the hand of my sister’s experience was probably a figment of her dreams…or was it??

 

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I’m the King of the Castle – Susan Hill

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If you are a budding writer of thriller, crime or horror fiction then Susan Hill is where you should go for tutorials on how to build menace.   I’m the King of the Castle is a story which induces fear of immense proportion, totally outweighing the size of its slim volume.  As the chapters progress we witness ever more cringeworthy episodes of the persecution and exploitation of a boy powerless to resist the bullying, underhand tactics of his almost-step-brother; these eventually push him to extremes and the saddest of ends.  Hill does her usual expert best at building the psychological intimidation dished out by the persecutor and the escalating anxiety felt by the persecuted.  It is heart-rending to witness the parental indifference, the vulnerability of the helpless boy and the pure evil of the cruel bully.   This book is short, but says so much about power and powerlessness in society and as you may expect, it does not have a happy ending.  Just when you think the young victim has found a means of escape, his way out is blocked again leaving him with few options. I urge you to read this book and marvel at a masterful example of a violence-free psychological thriller, made that much more moving by it’s tragic pre-teen central characters.

Another Susan Hill book

Prepare to be petrified

Last night I paid good money to be frightened almost to the point of hysteria.  Against our scaredy-cat better judgement, a few of us went along to the local picture house to watch the recent Hammer adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. 

Quite honestly, the fact that the film was produced by Hammer should have been a clue to how we may react, and as women of a certain age having all recently read the book, frankly we should have known better!

There has been a lot of media surrounding this latest adaptation of Susan Hill’s unsettling tale of a vengeful spirit that wanders the halls of a spooky house, wreaking havoc in the local area.   Susan Hill has been talking very openly about her thoughts on Jane Goldman’s screenplay, she seems genuinely pleased about the outcome and delighted by the additions and the cast.  She has a very pragmatic approach to her novel being adapted – once she gave up the rights to the book, she relinquished the rights to have a say in how it should be presented in other media (how grown up!)  It seems to be her fans that have had the most to say about the way the book has been changed to fit cinema.  This is not a review of the book or the film, just my thoughts on how they compare and affected me. I have a caveat to add here:  I scare easily.  (Attention:  possible spoilers coming up)

In the book, the main character is an ageing solicitor, Arthur, looking back at an episode in his life that has affected him profoundly.  His visit as a young man to Eel Marsh House, a place cut off from the mainland by a causeway flooded by the tide, and his encounter with a ghost there had huge repercussions on his life.  He is at a stage where he needs to finally exorcise the demons conceived while working at the house on the paperwork and estate of a recently deceased client.  The story then works in flashback as Arthur regurgitates his tale on paper.  The encounter he has with the vengeful spirit at the house in the marshes brings his terror back to him, as he attempts to completely rid himself of the memories.

The structure of the film is very different.  I guess flashback in film rarely works well, so we see Arthur as a young solicitor, a grieving widower and father, struggling to hold down his job.  We experience the haunting with him first hand.  In cinema this structure works very well – you get a linear storyline, you know where you are.  There is however something quite unnerving about the way that in the book, Arthur’s memories of the original event terrorise him all over again as he tries to erase them.

Stillness, silence and noise create so much of the unsettling atmosphere of the book. Arthur hears noises in the marsh, noises in the house sandwiched between episodes of silence and stillness when, even as a reader you are listening for the next sound and can feel and hear your own heart beating against your ribs in anticipation for what is to come. The film, as you would expect is full of big noises.  Firstly there is the soundtrack; suitably spooky.   More terrifying are the periods where there is no sound, no music and even more effective, no dialogue.  You are lulled into a false sense of security, sucked into the visuals, your ears turn themselves off and then, wham!  a big sound, screaming, barking, birds cawing, clock-work toys starting up, doors slamming.  I’m not too proud to tell you that it terrified me.  The visuals in the film were spooky, but the sounds were very frightening.

There is an underlying theme in the book relating to how the characters and the reader feels about children.  This is set up early on in both the book and the film.  In the film you see Arthur with his son who despite being only 4 is clearly concerned about his father’s happiness.  In the book and film you witness a meeting between Arthur and his boss where they discuss the client whose papers Arthur is due to put in order.  Arthur asks whether there were any children.  His boss hesitates with his answer, which is different in the film to the book, but still gives you enough of a feeling that something is not quite right.

Whereas in the book the children of the village are alluded to and only seen on a few occasions, they are ever-present in the film.  Of course there is also the child that is the source of the ghost’s vengeful activities, always in the background.  There is something incredibly spooky about wholesome children in a horror film, if that is not enough to send you over the edge, the plethora of Victorian wind-up toys will send you diving under your cardigan as soon as a cymbal-clashing monkey enters the screen.  The dominance of children as a theme in the book and film, sets up the shocking ending very nicely – you can almost feel it coming.

I don’t want to spoil things too much for potential readers of the book or viewers of the film by revealing the endings.  They are completely different to each other.  My vote definitely goes to the ending of the book.  It is much more shocking.  Although you are expecting something awful to happen, I didn’t anticipate the events of the book’s final pages.  The film is slightly less satisfying.  We were left with a few questions as to what the end meant – but I guess chatter of that nature is much more pleasing to a film-maker than punters leaving the screening berating their work and wishing they hadn’t wasted their cash.

I don’t want to talk about the performances of the actors in the film in any great detail.  I thought they were all pretty decent actually.  Daniel Radcliffe was believable as Arthur – although I think he could do with a voice coach, there are times he sounds still very young.  However he admirably managed to convince me of his grief and fear throughout.

I am glad I spent my money being scared stupid last night.  There was quite a bit of giggling in the theatre and it was all down to either embarrassment at screaming in public during a film or through genuine hysteria brought on by fear!  Which ever way you come to experience The Woman in Black, book or film, it is a good old-fashioned, unsettling, fear-inducing ghost story.

Please check it out, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as long as you are prepared to be petrified!

My Bedside Table 2

Back to the bedside table…

The pile of books at the back of the table is made up of the next books to be read or books I dip in and out of as and when I fancy it.

After the recent interest in Birdsong due to the lovely BBC adaptation, one of my bookgroups chose Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks as our next book to read.  I have to confess that I’ve read a few of his and none lives up to Birdsong (although Engleby is brilliant in an unsettling way), so I am looking forward to reading this war romance to see how it measures up.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte is also a bookclub book.  Anne Bronte is probably the lesser known of the Bronte sisters, but don’t underestimate her…oh no, this lady packed a punch in her day.  This book caused uproar when it was published, as it concerns a woman, Helen, who leaves her husband because he mentally and physically abuses her and her son.  Such behaviour was unheard of in Anne Bronte’s day, but many women will have suffered like Helen.  It was a shocking novel at the time and was chosen by a fellow bookclubber for that reason, our theme being “books that caused a scandal when published”.  There are so many books that fall under this banner, but goodness, most of us have read them all.  It is refreshing to come across something that isn’t normally found on the classic newspaper lists.  I have to admit that I have cheated a little when it comes to this book, as Woman’s Hour serialised an adaptation just after we chose it and I was captivated from the first installment.  I cannot wait to get stuck into the book.

Susan Hill is a fascinating writer and reviewer.  She is one of those people who seems to know so much about books and writers.  I came across this book, Howards End Is On The Landing, here.  It is a memoir of her reading life.  She wanders the multitude of bookshelves in her house that bend and heave under the sheer weight of the books she owns, some of which she hasn’t read or forgot she even had in her collection.   She decided to spend a year re-reading and discovering books on her shelves rather than buying new ones.  This book is an account of her rediscovering well-loved titles and discussing the merits of one book over another, one author over another.  Her aim to find a definitive 40 titles that she could not bear to live without, but it has to be only 40.  Imagine how hard this would be…the discussion about Shakespeare is particularly amusing.  But there is more to this book than merely Susan talking about her favourite titles.  There are some beautiful anecdotal passages in which she describes her encounters with some literary heavyweights.  These private vignettes add a human angle to the books she writes about and reminds us that writers are just like the rest of us.  The great thing about Susan Hill’s book is that you don’t have to read it in one sitting.  I love just dipping in and out of it.

When I got married a couple of years ago, we themed our tables around the books and writers we loved.  I bought some old books with titles that had something to do with marriage from a lovely local charity bookshop.  I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t pay a great deal of attention to the contents, only the titles.  We mixed these up with books by our favourite authors and decorated our tables with them.  The Old Wives Tale by Arnold Bennett was one of them.   I didn’t know anything about Arnold Bennett, and then coincidentally read about him in 2 different places in the same week.  The first was in Susan Hill’s aforementioned book.  She doesn’t say much about him other than he was a prolific writer of novels and diaries.  I then read an article about him in the Guardian and realised that I owned one of his books.  Hence it is now on my bedside table as I intend to pick it up at some point soon.  Strangely enough he also had an omelette named after him after he requested that the chefs at the Savoy make him something special.

I no longer recall why One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is on my bedside table.  I finished it a long time ago and absolutely adored it.  I suspect it is there because I want to read it again.  I’m not going to write more than that about Marquez right now as I suspect he may become a regular feature.

The saddest title on my bedside table is the next one; What Can I Do To Help by Deborah Hutton.  This book is on loan from a friend who knows that one of my close friends was diagnosed with a brain tumour last year and when I first found out, I struggled with how I could best be of practical help.  It was really useful at the start, but I think I can return it now as I have realised that, for me to be myself is all my friend needs.  I never really got on with self-help books.

I love getting a quick blast of wit from The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy.  These poems are so readable and a bit like the Guardian column “What I’m Really Thinking”.  They all have the same mocking tone of a wife, partner or sister of a notable man assessing their achievements and failures.  It’s just hilariously amusing.

The final 2 books are slightly linked.  A bit like the Susan Hill and Carol Ann Duffy books, there are times when nothing but a short story will do.  Raymond Carver is a master in this area and this book is a classic example of how books lead you to other books.  I was reading a book called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami.   In it, he talks about having stolen the idea for his title from the Raymond Carver collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.  Now, I don’t own that book but we did have Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?  Mr Fiction Habit couldn’t believe I hadn’t already read it.  At about the same time I heard one of Carver’s stories, The Fat Man, read aloud on a podcast I subscribe to…it all led me to the book on my bedside table.  The other collection of short stories, I recently snaffled from the Guardian and I’m sure that some of the stories will lead me to yet more great writers…