How the Haunting of Hill house Rewrote Horror’s Rules

The Guardian, Textbook Terror

Jackson was the first author to understand that “houses aren’t haunted – people are”, says Hill. “All the most terrible spectres are already there inside your head, just waiting for the cellar door of the subconscious to spring open so they can get out, sink their icy claws into you,” he says. “In the story, the house toys with the minds of our heroes just like the cat with the mouse: with a fascinated, joyful cruelty. Nothing is more terrifying than being betrayed by your own senses and psyche.”

Theodora Goss, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (2017)

Image shows the cover of the novel which features the title in large white stylised letters on a black background surrounded by a design based on moments in the book, green plants, a knife, a key, a puma, a pen and in the bottom right corner, a woman with a pistol.

What if the “mad scientists” of Gothic literature had, in their various ways, produced a number of monstrous daughters who somehow find each other and start to investigate their mysterious origins? That’s the conceit behind Theodora Goss’s lovely fantasy novel, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter.

Characters appear from Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, Frankenstein, ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’, The Island of Doctor Moreau, Dracula and the Sherlock Holmes stories. It’s a book written by someone who obviously loved these tales, but who came to wonder, what about the women? What kind of story might emerge from those brief appearances, gaps and omissions?

After her mother dies, young Mary Jekyll find herself in dire financial straits. Suspecting that her father’s criminal friend, Edward Hyde, may still be alive, she enlists the help of Mr Sherlock Holmes and sets out to investigate, in the hope of claiming the outstanding reward for Hyde’s discovery.  But what she discovers is the existence of the troublesome teenager, Diana Hyde, who has grown up in a home for fallen women and who claims to be Mary’s half-sister.

As Mary delves into the mystery of Edward Hyde and his associates, she meets, and slowly fills her house with, a group of “monstrous girls” who have all been created through strange experiments: the poisonous Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau (a cat in the form of a woman), and the gentle giant, Justine Frankenstein. Each of the characters represents an aspect of how women are viewed under patriarchy and Goss has a lot of fun playing around with these tropes. With the slightly bemused support of Holmes and Watson, their investigations lead them to a confrontation with Frankenstein’s monster and the existrence of a secret society which seems to have had a hand in their creation.

This book is a delight for someone, like me, who grew up on these stories, but is very happy to see them being re-written from a feminist perspective. It’s also warm and comforting and has that “found family” feel which is so emotionally satisfying when done well.

Was there anything I didn’t like? Well, I have great fondness for Frankenstein’s monster,  and was a little saddened to find him represented so unsympathetically, but then again, it’s about time poor Justine got her own story.

Sherlock Holmes was also well done, if represented as rather nicer and more laid-back than Doyle’s creation, something Goss gets around by suggesting that that Holmes is the one in Watson’s stories. Dr Watson is perfect though.

I found the shifts in point of view a bit awkward and jarring at times, but overall thought that Goss did a good job of imitating the style of Victorian novels.

I’m looking forward to the sequel, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, in which I’ve heard Mina Murray and Carmilla will be making appearances and there will be more cake.

Recommended if you’re looking for a cosy, rather than horrifying, Halloween read.

Daphne Du Maurier, Jamaica Inn (1936)

What strikes me most about Jamaica Inn is just how much Daphne Du Maurier’s writing improved in the novels that followed this romantic thriller. If she’d written nothing else, I suspect she’d have fallen into obscurity along with a lot of other popular women writers of her day.  I read Jamaica Inn at the same time as I was reading a collection of her late stories from the 1970s and while I enjoyed both books, if it wasn’t for the same name on the cover, I probably wouldn’t have recognised them as works by the same author. But, having said all of that, Jamaica Inn does point the way towards Du Maurier’s later works.

The novel is set in Cornwall in the 1820s. Our orphaned heroine, Mary Yellen, goes to live with her mother’s sister Patience at the isolated Jamaica Inn. To her alarm, she finds her aunt a shadow of her former self, utterly dominated by her brutal husband, Joss Merlyn.  Worse is to come when Mary realises there are wicked doings afoot at the Inn, the least of which is smuggling. Determined to discover the truth and get her aunt away from Jamaica Inn, Mary finds herself locked in a dangerous battle of wills with her uncle. Matters are further complicated when she meets two other men, Joss’s devilishly attractive younger brother and the strange, elusive Vicar of Altarnun. Who can Mary trust to help her in her predicament?

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Shirley Jackson, The Lottery and Other Stories (1948)

Ever since I finished reading the stories in this collection, I’ve been trying to articulate the effect they’ve had on me. It’s easy enough to appreciate Shirley Jackson as a superb writer who had absolute control of her material, but when it comes to discussing the content of the stories, I find myself struggling because they seem to say so much and I always end up with more questions than answers.  If I had to try and sum it up, I suppose I’d say these stories explore the high price attached to the modern western construction the “self” as something that must be constantly defended against the “others” it attempts to exclude and deny.

Jackson is very much a gothic writer and one trope that appears in a lot of the stories, and is often associated with the gothic, is that of “the double”.  Her use of doubling produces a sense of what Sigmund Freud would call “the uncanny”, that is, the deeply unsettling feeling that something which should have remained secret and hidden has come to light. Like seeing oneself reflected in a distorted mirror, the uncanny double makes the familiar world appear disturbingly strange. In ‘The Renegade’, we find a middle-class housewife doubled with her “chicken killing” dog. The doubling of woman and dog reflects her position in the family in a very unsettling light, but in so doing makes the horror of that position finally visible. Meanwhile, in the story ‘Charles’, the doubling of a supposedly perfect child with his monstrous other shatters his parents’ illusions. Adult denial about the nature of children is a theme in several of the stories. My favourite use of doubling occurs in the chilling story ‘Of Course’ in which a family is confronted with some alarming new neighbours. But this new family is (of course), an uncanny mirror held up to the supposedly “normal” family, the flipside of the deadly, conventional, suburban lifestyle that the story’s protagonist is herself living. The neighbours are horrifying because they are not really so very different.

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Daphne Du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel (1951)

For God’s sake come to me quickly. She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment.

It is a razor blade of a novel: the blade is carefully hidden, but it is there inside the packaging, and, fifty years later, its capacity to draw blood remains unaltered, Sally Beauman, ‘Introduction’, p. vi.

Phillip Ashley has been raised by his wealthy, bachelor cousin Ambrose within the insular all-male world of an unnamed Cornish estate during an unspecified time in the past. Phillip adores his cousin and fully expects to inherit the estate in due course, but the smooth progress of this narrative is interrupted when Ambrose travels to Italy where he meets a distant cousin called Rachel and, much to Phillip’s alarm, suddenly marries her.  Phillip waits for the happy couple to return home as promised, but they never appear and Ambrose’s letters become increasingly disturbing – Rachel’s financial affairs are troubled, Ambrose suspects Rachel of something, Ambrose is ill.  A final desperate plea spurs Phillip to set out for Florence, but he arrives too late to find that Ambrose is dead, supposedly of a brain tumour.  Rachel’s villa has been shut up and the lady herself has disappeared.  Angry and grieving Phillip returns to Cornwall where a few weeks later Rachel arrives, claiming to want nothing more than to see the place that her husband loved so much.  At first, Phillip’s only intention is to punish Rachel and try to catch her out as a con-artist, perhaps even a black widow, but he quickly finds himself becoming obsessed with her.

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Happy Halloween

We are spending it quietly this year, just staying in and watching The Haunting of Hill House.  We haven’t even carved a Jack O’ Lantern (that’s one my sister did a couple of years ago), but Andy doesn’t think there’s much point unless you can display it on your porch, which is difficult to do when you live in a second floor flat.

Still, here are some Halloween links:

The most amazing pumpkin carvings you will ever see

From Final Girl, some awesome horror movie posters

And for a Halloween read, how about The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Jane Eyre (2011)

Having enjoyed Susanna White’s 2006 television adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, I was interested to see what director Cary Fukunaga would bring to this new feature length version.

Spoiler alert – you might not want to read any further if you haven’t read the novel, or don’t want to know what this adaption does to Bronte’s text

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