Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Beautifully Imperfect Book

A post on Tally Ho Sulky reminded me that though I'm a huge fan of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I'd never read Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. I suddenly knew that it was exactly what I wanted to read, right now, and fortunately our library had a copy, a 1959 edition that had been read so many times that every single page had been dog-eared and the corners completely rounded off.

It's been years since I've had such a thoroughly delicious reading experience. Our kids are home from school this week and one has the flu, so I let them watch movies while I sat in another room reading by the woodstove.

The thing about this book is that it's definitely not perfect, at all. I wanted to know more about all of the characters; I wanted the subplots more developed; I wanted the paranormal stuff better explained. Yet, yet -- picking the book up each time was like tumbling into a gorgeous dream-space. Jackson's voice is so compelling, the house so vivid, and every interaction between the characters so charged, I didn't care at all about the flaws.

There are so many different ways to love a book, aren't there? It's so great that a book doesn't have to be perfect to be wonderful. Sometimes it's easy to forget that when trying to write one.

10 comments:

jgodsey said...

great post. delicious

jrlennon said...

I'm fifty pages in and having a blast. Her approach to introducing the plot and characters is very much like Alison Lurie's...a kind of old-fashioned laying out of the elements before you and rubbing her hands together with a little cackle. I'm taking over by the woodstove today...

James said...

Stephen King (yes, him again, sorry) provides a terrific interpretation of Jackson's novel in his horror survey, Danse Macabre. Like he did with On Writing, King does a fine job of detailing the mechanics of fiction (in this case, only the horror/fantasy genre, though, including films and television).

rmellis said...

You can see the influence The H of HH had on The Shining -- and really on the horror genre in general. It must have been even creepier back in 1959.

amy shearn said...

I want to sit by the woodstove!

Funny -- I'm having a similar reading experience right now: a book that is so delicious I can't put it down. It's true -- it's good to remember that books are good in different ways, and that their imperfections are sometimes the best things about them.

It always makes me think of Moby Dick when people talk about imperfect novels. That novel is an unholy mess! And that's exactly why it's so good.

rmellis said...

So what are you reading, MA?

I want more!

AC said...

I would have thought that perfect v. imperfect was in the eye of the beholder, but it sounds like you have some definite rules. Are those your own standards or would I have been issued the list if I'd gone on to grad school? I'm not trying to be challenging, just genuinely curious about what I may have missed. I've always wondered also when I hear people say casually that there are only 6 (I've also heard 7) original plotlines in literature. True or truism?

rmellis said...

Feh, there are no rules. All I'm saying are there some pretty obvious "faults" with this book -- and of course not everyone will agree with me about them. It's mostly a matter of Jackson setting things up but not following through with them.

But here's a big one: the plot is set in motion by a Dr. Montague who invites the other characters to the house to explore and investigate the hauntings. How thrilling! But very little in the way of investigation happens and in fact the characters just sit around for three days and wait to be "haunted" -- and when it happens, they kind of pretend it didn't. Weird! The character of the Dr. is woefully undeveloped -- so much potential there, but Jackson decides not to do anything with him. Near the end his terrible, charicaturish wife comes along and steals the show -- which might have ruined any other book.

The character of Luke is also underused. The first glimpses of him are terrific -- but then he proceeds to take no actions all for the entire book.

You see what I mean? It's not that she's breaking my secret rules; it's that she causes frustration in the reader -- at least this reader -- by not following through on her promises.

But again: I loved the book in spite of all that, which surprised me.

5 Red Pandas said...

I think your criticisms are very fair. I felt frustrations while reading the book even though I ultimately enjoyed it. I felt like Jackson was setting up the whole book for the ending, but I think it would have meant more than just a simple, "whoah, scary!", if there had been deeper character development.

rmellis said...

I spelled "caricaturish" wrong. And I might have just spelled it wrong again.