The devil’s workshop that is the empty mind seeks solace in the familiar, but not too familiar. Familiarity is all around us in our self-incarcerations, especially we the privileged, staying home and aspiring to be stir-crazy. I am hardly immune, so I return to books I read in college, revelling in the familiar and the uncomfortable.
I have always loved Shirley Jackson’s writings, ever since I first read her short story The Lottery. Her ability to side-shuffle before delivering the short, sharp shock has made her work part of the canon that includes writers like Roald Dahl and Ray Bradbury. Her few novels continue her penchant to destabilise, perhaps best seen in her very creepy last novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
My book of choice in these times of solitude, however, is Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, an exploration of home, and of being home. No book explores this binary with such chilling ease, and returning to its pages allows me to think about architecture and domesticity beyond its narrative.
Four persons come together to stay for an extended period in a house with an unsavoury past, a house that has remained uninhibited for some time. All bring with them the baggage of their own pasts, and are subject to the frictions of adjusting to spaces with baggage of its own.
Indeed, Jackson sets out her premise in the very first paragraph. These lines have been called the best opening lines of any novel, and I tend to agree:
“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 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.”
Does a house exist outside of its being occupied? Jackson seems to think so. But does a house reconcile itself to being occupied? There’s the rub. Hill House seems sentient in its own way, as its new tenants come to discover, or is that just a figment of their imaginations Jackson never seems to lean in either direction and the narrative is memorable just by running on the razor’s edge.
As an architect, Hill House evokes a dilemma that all designers face – the aspiration to perfection that is the material design, and the uncontrollable nature of its occupation. Most architects keep that second half at bay, exiting a completed project before its users move in. Nothing represents this abdication better than architecture journals and magazines that valourise the new and the original, and celebrate freshly completed buildings with gloriously composed photographs of empty spaces, all done before any lived experience “contaminates” them.
Jackson instinctively seems to appreciate this, and in Hill House exerts a kind of revenge. What is a haunting, ultimately, but an unwanted occupation of spaces? Hill House, not sane, silently resists this intrusion. Perhaps comfortable in its interminable emptiness, it sees its occupants as spirits possessing the body/house and does what it can to exorcise them.
In the times we are in, we discover our homes anew, and perhaps our homes discover us too. I look around as I type this, and wonder, are the walls closing in? Is everything still plumb? So it seems, but oh! The lights have just gone out.
Mustansir Dalvi teaches at the Sir JJ College of Architecture. His most recent book of poetry is Cosmopolitician.
Read the other articles in The Art of Solitude series here.