Walking Alone Together: Family Monsters in the Haunting of Hill House

By Pascal, Richard | Studies in the Novel, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Walking Alone Together: Family Monsters in the Haunting of Hill House


Pascal, Richard, Studies in the Novel


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.

--Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House (3)

Elaine Tyler May has observed that "the legendary family of the 1950s, complete with appliances, station wagons, backyard barbecues, and tricycles scattered on the sidewalks, represented ... the first wholehearted effort to create a home that would fulfill virtually all its members' personal needs through an energized and expressive personal life" (11). The energies thus expended in pursuit of such easeful fulfillment were, ironically, volatile, if much of the popular print and screen discourse from that era devoted to promulgating the sacralization of the nuclear family is to be believed. For in the media (if not necessarily in actuality) the iconic households that aspired to keep the outer world at bay were spaces besieged from within--"haunted" is an appropriate metaphor--by family members intent upon usurping complete control over the premises in pursuit of their own whims and desires, thereby undermining the communal basis of the familial model. Overly needy personal lives too self-seeking threatened to usurp all the family's energies unto themselves. Wise, authoritative fathers could become overbearing tyrants; affectionate nurturing mothers could become smotheringly manipulative Moms; and adorably lively children could become egocentric little monsters. The title of one of the many screeds of the time that sounded alarm bells about the perilous consequences of domesticity gone awry provided a concise bestiary of the trio of mythic figures that were allegedly threatening the nation's well-lit living rooms: Dangerous Fathers, Problem Mothers, and Terrible Teens (1958).'

Fittingly, it was the most imaginative and acutely observant Gothic writer of the postwar era, Shirley Jackson, who brought the family monsters spawned by fears of permissiveness and authoritarianism most arrestingly into fiction. Notorious for her disturbing parable about heartland American communalism, "The Lottery," she was also well known in her time for her sprightly chronicles of family life in a suburban-seeming small town. In those tales of modern parenting monsters are nowhere really encountered, except as vaguely hinted at by the titles of the two volumes in which the stories were collected: Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957). The controversy over child rearing approaches and their consequences for family life seems to hover in the margins, however, and in her late novels it finds fuller and eerier expression as parents and children pit their steely egos against one another in a protracted struggle to dominate the family domain. Tellingly, those narratives feature literal casualties perpetrated by brawling, self-obsessed nuclear relations. The most significant casualty, however, is figurative. It is the demise (or at least debunking) of the idyllic family unit itself--and therefore of all that the era wished to invest in the domestic sphere and its defining project of "parenting." In Jackson's familial spaces filiarchy tends to reign supreme in that obsessive parenting, whether permissive or not, brings out the brattishness in children--and in the parents themselves.

The most famous of Jackson's novels, The Haunting of Hill House (1959), conjured up postwar America's disturbing anxieties about the modern family with wit, acuteness, and a healthy modicum of dread. In Hill House, the opening paragraph solemnly announces, "whatever walks there, walks alone" (3). In conformity with Gothic narrative convention, the "whatever" appears to be unidentifiable, even with regard to whether or not it is a single entity or a plurality--or somehow both. "Walking alone" (as though on the prowl) connotes isolation, yet it may be what the "whatever" does in oxymoronic togetherness, or by way of some bizarre familial pact arrived at by disparate clashing wills. …

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