review: the haunting of hill house

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)

I have had about a week to think over my response to The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.   One thing that has crystallized in my mind is that apparently, I don’t like saying that I don’t like a book.  It’s hard not to erase that sentence because I realize how ridiculous it sounds, and I’m always saying to my students that it’s okay for them to not like some of the books we are reading as long as they can articulate why they don’t like the book.  Now that I find myself in that position, I’m reminded of how challenging that task can actually be.

The story is set at Hill House, a large manor house that has the characteristics of a castle and is repeatedly characterized as being sentient, endowed with human traits, and seemingly possessed of its own volition and power.  Where I think Jackson excels is the creation of a gothic-style atmosphere into which she plants her four main characters: Dr. John Montague, an anthropologist looking for proof of the supernatural so that he can gain respect and vindication from his peers in the academy; Luke Sanderson, son of the current owners of Hill House and heir to the property; Theodora, a free-spirited, witty art-type who accepts Montague’s invitation to stay at Hill House for the summer as a kind of lark; and Eleanor, a young woman who has been the primary caregiver for her ailing mother for the last twelve years, and who now is on her own and trying to experience the world and find a place to belong.  Like the house, Eleanor has been isolated from the society of others, and like the house, Eleanor is trying to connect with others.  This is another thing that I think Jackson does well—capturing Eleanor’s need for new experiences, acceptance from others, and a place to call home.  Although Hill House’s first impression is not welcoming, the four rely upon bantering with each other, playing games, and exploring the house to cope with the sense of evil and “wrongness” that seems to pervade the house.  Eventually, unexplained phenomena begin to occur, and with each page it is Eleanor who becomes more and more isolated from the group and seemingly the focus of Hill House’s negative influence.

A while back, I read and reviewed Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black.  I had considered teaching that novel instead of The Haunting of Hill House, but now that I have read both, I think it may have been better to teach Hill’s novel.  It just has a more interesting plot and better use of gothic horror conventions to invoke terror.  Maybe I am jaded, but I didn’t find anything especially chilling or terrifying about The Haunting of Hill House, and perhaps this is one reason why I didn’t like the book—it didn’t meet my expectations.  I was expecting to feel ill at ease while reading at the very least, but I never did.  The novel is told through Eleanor’s point of view, but this is a problem because as readers we begin to question Eleanor’s sanity.  What this meant for me as a reader is that the novel is much more of a psychological study of Eleanor than a chilling, terrifying gothic horror novel.  The other thing that I didn’t like and that was done better in Hill’s novel is the pacing—I felt like it took a long time for story and the plot of The Haunting of Hill House to get off the ground.  I know why Jackson did this from a narrative perspective—we the readers are waiting for something to happen, just like the characters in the novel are waiting for something to happen.  I get it, but it still detracted from my overall satisfaction with the story.  The other thing that I didn’t like was that a lot of the ambiguities that Jackson weaves into her story to heighten the suspense are never fully resolved at the end of the story.  On the one hand, I understand why Jackson does this too—it’s a way of creating tension in the novel and also because she doesn’t want to tell her readers what to think.  She wants them to come to their own conclusions.  On the other hand, there were several things that were confusing and not clear to me as a reader.  Perhaps that just means that I was reading closely enough or that the story demands a second reading, but the ultimate result is that it was an additional obstacle to my enjoyment of the story.  In that vein, I might call it a bit modernist in the way that it uses ambiguity and refuses to resolve the ambiguity at the end of the story.  I think Hill’s use of ambiguity and the way she creates tension in the novel is much more effective and creates a better reading experience.  The final thing about the novel that I didn’t like was that I had a hard time getting invested in Eleanor as a character or the plot of the novel in general.  By the time I got to the end of the story I was just glad to be at the end of the story.  One of the things I want out of a good read is to care about how it ends, and I didn’t really care about how The Haunting of Hill House ended; thus the conclusion was less than satisfying.

My final analysis is that I am glad that I read the novel so that I can have my own opinion about it, but I can’t say that I would recommend it to other readers.  It’s a disappointment, too, because I chose this book to teach over Hill’s book, and my thinking now is that I made the wrong selection.  What I will take away is more awareness of what I want from a gothic horror novel.

review: i am legend

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954)

In reading descriptions of this novel, oftentimes the first thing written is that I Am Legend a horror novel.  After reading the book, I would definitely disagree with the categorization of the novel in the horror genre.  I wasn’t terrified or particularly on edge while reading the book.  Sure, there is dramatic tension in the novel, but nothing that would make me fear sleeping in the dark.  To me, that’s the feeling I have after reading a horror novel.  I think the novel is more properly placed in the sci-fi/fantasy genre, and this is all to say that if you don’t like reading from the horror genre, don’t immediately pass over I Am Legend.

Summarizing the plot of the story is fairly simple, and yet my summary leaves a lot of plot points out because I don’t want to spoil the entire plot and action of the novel.  The protagonist is Robert Neville, a man in his mid-thirties living in the suburbs of Los Angeles.  The thing that makes Robert Neville unique is that he is the last man on earth—that is, he’s the last non-infected man on earth.  The story begins in January 1976, and we come to find out that at that time, Robert Neville has been alone for about eight months, and that it was only ten months before the story begins that a plague started to infect the inhabitants of Earth.  Most of those infected with the plague began to exhibit vampire-like tendencies—unable to handle sunlight, spending the day in a kind of coma, recoiling from garlic and crosses, etc.  As this plague rapidly spread across the earth and decimated the population, no one was able to come up with an explanation for the plague or a cure.  Neville’s own wife and daughter fall victim to the plague, and though he has searched long, Neville comes to realize that he is the only survivor of the plague, though the exact reason for his immunity remains a mystery for much of the novel.  Although Neville is the sole survivor of the plague (or perhaps because of this) he is the target of the vampires, particularly Ben Cortman.  The vampires come to Neville’s house each night yelling at him to come out, but Neville has secured his home so that he is safe as long as he remains inside while it’s dark, and he’s amassed all of the frozen foods and necessaries of life he needs to survive; what he doesn’t have or runs out of, he looks for during the daytime.  Also during the daytime, he hunts and kills vampires while they are in their coma-like sleep and unable to fight back.  The plot is driven by the inner conflicts that Neville struggles with (particularly his inability to fully leave behind the past and accept the present, as well as the question of what kind of future awaits him) as well as his endeavors to learn how the plague developed and spread and attempting to find a cure, and finally his struggles against the vampires.

Vampires—I know what some of you may be thinking.  Even if you have had enough of vampires to last you for the next decade, don’t immediately pass over I Am Legend.  Yes, the vampires are the threat that Neville has to fight against, but really, this book isn’t about vampires.  It’s very much a psychological study of how one man deals with the isolation and loneliness of being the last surviving member of the human race.  When one is so completely and utterly alone, how does that shift the way one thinks of morality and ethics?  When one believes himself to live in an environment whose primary rule is kill or be killed, what actions are permissible?  It delves into the consequences and constructions of a “me vs. them” mentality.  It meditates on the question of what it means to be human.  It also questions the legitimacy of using violence in order to establish and maintain order in a new society.  Further still, because of its apocalyptic setting, the novel can perhaps be read as a cautionary tale.  There is so much more to this book than the vampires that collectively act as the antagonist to Robert Neville.

In truth, I don’t think I would have picked this book up if it weren’t for my interest in teaching it in a class where the emphasis is upon novels that have been adapted into films.  If I just had the synopsis on the back cover to go by (and it is worth saying here that I haven’t seen the recent 2007 film adaptation of the novel) I probably wouldn’t have made the decision to read the book.  While I am a fan of the sci-fi/fantasy genre, this wouldn’t have really peaked my interest.  I am glad, though, that I have read the novel.  I think it’s an excellent example of the “man alone” narrative plot, and again, the psychological study of Robert Neville is something that I found to be really compelling.  He’s a man who has no other options—or, at least, believes he has no other options—and this is something that always intrigues me in terms of character, mainly because it lets me ask my students what else could he be expected to do.  The question of whether or not this is a recommended read is a difficult one to answer.  On the one hand, I had no problems putting the book down.  I do think the pacing is a little slow, and there really is only the one character to focus on—Robert.  On the other hand, I really like Matheson’s narrative style, particularly his diction, as well as the way he portrays Robert as being haunted by the past, stuck in the present, and uncertain of the future.  Final analysis: it’s a good book, but not one of my top 10 reads over the last twelve months.

review: persuasion

Persuasion by Jane Austen (1818)

Persuasion was Jane Austen’s last completed novel, and it was published alongside Emma after her death.  Last novels have always had a special interest for me, and Persuasion is no exception.  This is the third novel that I’ve read by Austen (and it’s worth noting that I read Austen for the first time last spring at about this time), and although my introduction to the author has come much later than most people I know, I definitely understand why so many readers adore her works.  I loved Emma, but Persuasion has become my new favorite.

Like Northanger Abbey and Emma, at its most basic level, Persuasion offers its readers the typical early 19th century marriage plot.  The protagonist and heroine of the novel is Anne Elliot.  Anne is the second daughter of Sir Walter Elliot, her older sister is Elizabeth (identical in opinions and temperament to her father and his favorite) and her younger sister is Mary, who has already married into the Musgrove family who dwell at Uppercross.  No one in Anne’s family cares much about what she thinks or feels or wants, nor do they really consider her existence or her worth until she can be of some use to them.  Her mother died when she was fourteen, and so Lady Russell, a close friend of the family, has become a mother-figure for Anne. Unlike Catherine and Emma, Anne is not in the first blush of youth; instead, she is twenty-seven years old at the beginning of the novel, and she has already experienced disappointment and pain in love.  When Anne was nineteen she met and fell in love with Captain Wentworth and they became engaged; but Anne was persuaded by Lady Russell to call off the engagement because Wentworth had neither fortune nor class status equal to Anne’s.  Lady Russell persuades Anne that such a match would be a mésalliance, and that Anne would be needlessly throwing herself away.  The result is that Anne loses her bloom, Captain Wentworth goes off to naval service, and the two do not meet each other again for eight years.  The work of the novel is to overcome the intervening years so that Anne and Captain Wentworth can be finally united in love and marriage.

But there’s more to catch a reader’s interest in the novel than the marriage plot.  Another thing that is typical of an Austen novel is the preoccupation with and social commentary on the rigid class structure and class consciousness of 19th century England.  One of the wonderful scenes in the novel occurs when Austen, through Anne, challenges the ways in which male writers have been privileged to label women (here women are labeled as inconstant and fickle), without women having any ability or privilege to challenge those labels or form their own identities.  Also, those characters who are the most class conscious and concerned with issues of precedence based upon one’s position in society are revealed to be the most worthless members of society.  Men who are preoccupied with knowing only “gentlemen” and the landed gentry and nobility show that though appearances and titles identify them as gentlemen, they fall very very short of what an English gentleman should be (at least, in Austen’s opinion).  Austen is most scathing in her critique of Sir Walter’s selfishness, his idleness, and his financial insolvency arising from his sense of entitlement and necessity to enjoy all that he feels baronets are entitled to enjoy, regardless of his mounting debts.  All outward appearances indicate that Sir Walter is a gentleman, but everything beneath the surfaces provides undeniable evidence to the contrary.  Austen also aims her pen at the insistence upon precedence that determined a woman’s place within her family and within her society, and she embodies all that she sees as reprehensible in the character of Mary, Anne’s sister.  Indeed, with the exception of Anne, the entire Elliot family is held up as being the very picture of all that is wrong with the class of landed gentry in 19th century England, and Austen makes the case that although power and authority have resided in this class for decades, this class’s power and authority is no longer legitimate or even desirable, and it is significant that at the end of the novel, Anne Elliot withdraws from this old order in favor of the new order.

That new order is characterized by the rising professional class, specifically in this novel, the naval officers settling back into the domestic sphere as the war between England and France is nearing its conclusion.  In Austen’s view, these men—men like Captain Wentworth and his friends, Captain Benwick and Captain Harville, as well as Admiral Croft, who is currently renting the ancestral home of the Elliots, Kellynch Hall—comprise the legitimate center of power and authority.  These men actually have a positive and protective influence upon England, and rather than draining the country of its resources and concerning themselves with espousing and upholding a rigid class structure as a means of exclusion and flattering their vanity, they actually give something back to society.

There is something appealing about Anne Elliot as the protagonist and heroine of the novel whose constancy, intelligence, and goodness finally brings her the man she loved and lost at such a young age.  There is also something about Anne that resonates with me and that I can relate to and identify with, and maybe that’s why she is my favorite Austen heroine thus far. Though we don’t see Wentworth as much as perhaps I wanted, his words to Anne at the end and their reunion is just a feel good moment in the story.  Yes, you get the happy ending you’ve been expecting all along, but more importantly, that happy ending is deeply satisfying and actually evoked an emotional response from me.  Overall, I enjoyed this book immensely and definitely recommend it to readers who haven’t tried Austen or haven’t read Persuasion.

 

review: hounded

Hounded by Kevin Hearne (2011)

As much as I try to read what is already on my bookshelf or loaded onto my Kindle, there are times when I just want to buy a new, shiny book.  This is how I discovered Hounded by Kevin Hearne.  I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to read and I spent a while searching Earth’s biggest bookstore, but I eventually stumbled onto this book and it seemed like it might be what I was looking for, so I took a chance and splurged.  Hounded, the first book in the Iron Druid Chronicles, didn’t disappoint.

The protagonist is Atticus O’Sullivan, a 2,100-year-old Druid who lives in Tempe, Arizona and runs an occult shop that sells, among other things, various kinds of teas.  He rides his bike to work, takes the time to chat with the elderly widow, Mrs. Donaghue, who lives on his street and does various tasks and yard work for her.  Mrs. Donaghue is Irish and feels a kinship with Atticus for that reason. He also has an Irish wolfhound named Oberon who he can communicate with telepathically.  The relationship between Atticus and Oberon is wonderful; it adds humor and emotion to the story.  These two relationships appear to be the most trusting, loyal, and important connections he has with others.  For centuries, Atticus has been hiding out from his archenemy, Aenghus Og, the god of love in Atticus’ pantheon of gods.  It turns out that over two thousand years ago, Atticus came into possession of a sword of power—Fragarach, the Answerer—and Aenghus has wanted it back ever since.  Indeed, that is the main plot of this book—Aenghus Og’s pursuit of Atticus and Fragarach, and the machinations he employs to get what he wants while Atticus, of course, spends his time trying to thwart Aenghus’ evil master plan.  True to the conventions of myths involving heroes and gods, Atticus is both helped and hindered by other gods within his pantheon, and also true to convention, the motives of those gods is sometimes suspect and self-interested.  Case in point, Atticus has a long history with the Morrigan, goddess of death, and Flidais, goddess of the hunt. In this book he meets Brighid, who is the current reigning god of the Fae realm.  As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that these goddesses are very willing to use Atticus as a pawn to achieve their own ends.

In addition to the supporting characters listed above, Atticus is friends with the local Tempe pack of werewolves, one of whom—Hal Hauk—is his attorney of record.  His other attorney—Leif—is a vampire, and at times, Atticus pays Leif’s attorney fees with a glass of his own blood, which of course, being 2,100 years old, carries lots of power.  Rounding out the supporting cast is Granuaile, a mysterious young woman who works in one of Atticus’ favorite watering holes and Malina Kosolowski, a witch in the local coven (and by the way, Atticus does not like or trust witches).  It seems to me that based upon the way Hounded ends, these two characters have the potential to become integral parts of the world that Hearne is creating.  In sum, one of the things I liked about this book is that as a first book in a series, it presents an interesting and, dare I say it, fresh cast of supporting characters that don’t feel like recycled character types and stories.  I also liked these characters and wanted to get to know more about each of them.  And although Atticus very much belongs in the category of loner, supernatural, long-lived protagonists, I don’t feel like he’s a carbon copy of every other male protagonist I encounter in urban sci-fi/fantasy.

I said this before in my review of Fated by Benedict Jacka, but one of the things I want from the first book in a series is for it to give me a reason to want to pick up the second book in the series straightaway.  While I didn’t feel that Fated was as successful as it could have been on that particular level, I do think Hounded succeeds without question.  The characters and the world that Hearne is building are appealing and engaging, and the pace of the novel was fast but not rushed or clumsy.  I had a hard time putting the book down when bedtime rolled around, and I couldn’t wait to pick it back up again after work.  I compare this book to Fated because it was the last first-book-in-the-series that I read, but the reality is that I tend to compare all books in this genre that feature a male protagonist to one of my favorite series—Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files.  I doubt Harry and Atticus would get along, but I do think they would respect each other.  So many of the things I love about the Dresden series are present in the Iron Druid series, and that’s a compliment I haven’t paid to a book in a while.  I was inclined to pick up the next Alex Verus book to see how Jacka would continue to evolve his characters and his fictional world, but I wasn’t in a hurry to get my hands on the next installment.  My response to Hearne’s series is different in that I really do want to read the next installment and at this point, I can see myself consuming each book in rapid fashion if I don’t restrain myself.

If you enjoy the Harry Dresden books, or if you enjoy urban sci-fi/fantasy featuring strong male protagonists and good supporting characters that aren’t merely tools for advancing the action and creating tension and conflict, or if you enjoy serial fiction and are in the market for a new series, I would recommend sampling this first book in the Iron Druid Chronicles.  It’s not the same old, same old worn-out story with the same old, same old worn out characters.  It’s fun, light, and satisfying.

review: the missing chapter

The Missing Chapter by Robert Goldsborough (1994)

I started reading the Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout years ago.  A friend and I found them in a Half Price Books store, and we bought all the ones on the shelf, divided them up, and exchanged them when we had finished reading them.  For a long time we both looked out for other books in the series that we didn’t have.  It wasn’t until this past Cyber Monday that I discovered that Robert Goldsborough had continued the series and written eight additional Nero Wolfe novels, including a prequel telling the story of how Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe met.  Needless to say I immediately texted my friend and asked her if she knew about these new books; she didn’t, and we both engaged in some internet commerce that day.  I read Murder in E Minor first, which is the first in Goldsborough’s series and seems to pick up two years after the final Nero Wolfe novel published during Stout’s lifetime—A Family Affair. Now I have just finished The Missing Chapter, which is the seventh of the eight (and the last one, really, since the eighth book is the prequel).  The book was an interesting read, but I wouldn’t say it was as good as the first by Goldsborough.

For anyone not familiar with Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, here’s a bit of context.  Nero Wolfe is an infamous private detective who lives in a brownstone on Thirty-Fifth Street in New York City and commands “exorbitant” fees for his investigative services.  He rarely leaves home, and on the fourth floor of the brownstone are the plant rooms for the numerous species of Wolfe’s prized orchids, which are one of his chief delights.  Wolfe spends the hours between 9 and 11 and 4 and 6 in the plant rooms daily without fail (except on Sundays), and he gets to the plant rooms by elevator (which happens to break down completely in this novel).  His other chief delight is food—he has a live-in cook, Fritz Brenner, who makes gourmet meals for Wolfe.  Wolfe refuses to allow any discussion of business during meals.  He takes breakfast in bed while wearing his yellow pajamas, and when he’s doing the “brain work” to solve the crime, his lips push in and push out.  He’s a man of many idiosyncrasies and few words, which is one of the reasons we require Archie Goodwin in the story.  The stories are told in first-person through Archie’s point of view.  While Wolfe is your prototypical Great Detective of Golden Age Detective Fiction, Archie is the man of action.  He, too, is a private detective, but he’s worked for Wolfe for years as a kind of private secretary/right-hand man and does all the leg work, reporting his findings back to Wolfe.  One of the things that amused me about this novel is that Archie is asked if he’s a hardboiled detective or if he’s ‘urbane.’ It ends up that he’s urbane, thus reminding the reader that the novel itself is in the Golden Age tradition.  I’ll come back to this point later, but the main thing is that in my opinion, Goldsborough has done a wonderful job of capturing and remaining true to the characters of Wolfe and Goodwin as Stout created them.

The plot of this novel revolves around the death of a detective fiction writer, Charles Childress.  Childress (like his creator) has continued a series of detective fiction novels after the death of the series creator.  As the story unfolds, readers learn that some people praised Childress’ new novels in the series while others thought they were terrible.  We get the opinions of the suspects who are also part of the book world—his publisher, his editor, his agent, and a vicious newspaper literary critic—and a lot of what they say is couched within the discourse surrounding detective fiction as a literary genre—such as suspects, plots, the detective, etc.  Even Wolfe himself articulates one of the criticisms within that discourse when he summarily dismisses detective fiction and assures us that Tolstoy’s place in the canon is safe.  It all makes the novel an example of metafiction—it’s about the murder of a writer who has continued a beloved series of detective fiction written by a writer who is continuing a beloved series of detective fiction.  Like I said before, the novel is very conscious of itself as following the Golden Age tradition.  At one point, we are reminded of one of the main rules of detective fiction—that the novel itself is a puzzle, and that in the spirit of ‘fair play’ readers must be given all the clues they need in order to be able to solve the puzzle.  It also talks of red herrings, and there are plenty of those in this novel.  Another notable aspect of the novel is that one of the accusations leveled against Childress by his editor is that his plots are too thin and the suspects are too obvious.  As I was reading The Missing Chapter, I thought that the plot was a little thin. Now that I have read the entire book, I have to wonder if Goldsborough did this on purpose and that it is just another part of the metafiction.  If so, I think the novel definitely succeeds on that level.

The thing I have enjoyed about The Missing Chapter and Murder in E Minor is that they feel updated but familiar.  The Missing Chapter makes a host of pop culture references, including references to Leno and Letterman, and Archie makes use of personal computers.  Still, if you want to sample this new series of Wolfe novels, I would recommend starting with Murder in E MinorThe Missing Chapter is fine, but it’s not compelling and I had a hard time getting invested in the story.  I still want to read the other books in Goldsborough’s series, but I may have to lower my expectations.