Shatter Your Illusions of Love

‘”I am going to get fat and lazy in Hill House,” Theodora went on. Her insistence in Naming Hill House troubled Eleanor. It’s as though she were saying it deliberately, Eleanor thought, telling the house she knows its name, calling the house to tell it where we are; is it bravado? “Hill House, Hill House, House House,” Theodora said softly, and smiled across at Eleanor.’

In 1959 Shirley Jackson published ‘The Haunting of Hill House.’ Stephen King called the novel ‘As nearly a perfect haunted-house tale as I have ever read.’ This quotation sits on the cover of the Penguin Modern Classics paperback, is placed above the title (and Mrs Jackson’s name) so it’s obvious the publisher was happy with it, and why.

The first paragraph of the book was noteworthy for King.

Discussing the haunted house tale in ‘Danse Macabre’, he suggests the house requires an ‘historical context’ – a dark history – and that ‘Jackson establishes it immediately in the first paragraph of her novel, stating her tale’s argument in lovely, dreamlike prose.’ He then quotes the famous opening:

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.

He says of the opening that

Analysis of such a paragraph is a mean and shoddy trick, and should almost always be left to college and university professors, those lepidopterists of literature who, when they see a lovely butterfly, feel that they should immediately run into the field with a net, catch it, kill it with a drop of chloroform, and mount it on a white board and put it in a glass case, where it will still be beautiful…and just as dead as horseshit.

He then goes on to offer some analysis of the opening paragraph. (He promises not to kill it or mount it, only to stun it a little before letting it fly on. I’m not sure he’s right to worry as much. I’ll change his metaphor to an analogy: what type of person doesn’t want to know how the magic-trick was done? What type does?)

Stephen King says he has neither the skill nor the inclination to offer a full analysis of Jackson’s dreamy opening. I’ll believe him about the inclination bit. Stephen King is a magician. I’d bet he knows exactly what Jackson’s opening does – but doesn’t want to reveal another magician’s secret.

Some think knowing the trick ruins the mystery. That depends on whether you prefer knowledge or mysteries. I’m not a magician, I always want to know how the trick is done, and I think knowing increases the beauty of it.

What does King say about it specifically? What he says about it first of all is interesting in itself. He states that

It begins by suggesting that Hill House is a live organism; tells us that this live organism does not exist under conditions of absolute reality; that because (although here I should add that I may be making an induction Mrs Jackson did not intend) it does not dream, it is not sane.

Does the opening ‘suggest’ Hill House is a live organism? I suppose it does, but ‘suggest’ is right. All humans are live organisms, and the first sentence tells us that to remain sane, live organisms need to dream. By ‘dream’ Jackson could well mean ‘fantasise’ or even ‘hallucinate’ as both these describe ways the mind of a live organism, a human one at any rate, can escape reality and therefore maintain sanity.

However I am unconvinced the first sentence actually refers to Hill House. It seems like it does, given the sentence which follows, but one needs to try to explain Jackson’s words ‘not sane’ to make this idea work.

Could she be telling nothing but the plain truth when describing Hill House as ‘not sane’? A house is indeed ‘not sane’ because it is a house, an object, not a live organism. Though something is ‘not sane’ it does not follow at all it must therefore be ‘insane’ – just as if something did not ‘turn left’ does not mean it necessarily ‘turned right’.

I think Jackson added ‘not sane’ into her description of Hill House to link it in the minds of readers with the first sentence, and could do so because to describe the house this way is still to tell the truth about it. If readers take it to mean something else then good: that might be the point – but Jackson hasn’t lied to anyone.

Once this piece of clever misdirection is complete, Jackson can then tell the plain truth about the house in more detail, knowing the reader will not be reading it as the plain truth. (Remove ‘not sane’ – therebye uncoupling it from the first sentence. Does it sound quite so creepy?)

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.

The ending sounds spooky, but it would be true of anyone who walked around a house by themselves. They would walk alone if that house wasn’t haunted.

In other words the first paragraph disorientates the reader; allows the reader to think the ‘problem’ – or the ‘issue’ as we might now say – lies with house, when the problem might really be with one of the characters about to pay Hill House a visit…

Image result for the haunting of hill house

The Kindness of Strangers

My daughter recently bought the book Girl Online by Zoella – or Zoe Sugg. She’s an absurdly popular YouTube chick who posts videos about clothes, make-up and other things.

My daughter thinks she’s wonderful.

More recently my daughter (who is 12) told me Zoella was holding a book-signing event in Bristol and could I take her? I said sure, I’d take her.

After checking online, she told me that the tickets were only £12 but were sold out in any case, so there was no point in planning anything more about the trip to Bristol.

It makes sense to have a book signing event a ticket-only occasion when you are as popular as Zoella: the poor girl would be sat there day and night for a week signing books otherwise. She has (literally) millions of fans.

But to charge your fans to meet you seems a breach of good taste. Why not make the tickets free?

I immediately thought of other famous people and how they behave towards their fans.

I know that Tom Cruise is famous for spending hours outside premieres talking to fans and taking pictures and talking on the phone to the family of those hanging about outside the theatre.

I think I’m right to say that Stephen King – one of the world’s most famous writers – has a rule that he’ll sign only one book per person at a signing, else the queue doesn’t keep moving. He doesn’t charge his fans to come and get a book signed, and he’s got hundreds of millions of fans.

My daughter didn’t seem to care that it would have cost £12 to meet her online hero, but I would have been annoyed if the ticket had cost 12p.

The charge of £12 per ticket (which generously allowed one adult to accompany their child) seems to be more than just a breach of good taste when you realise Zoe Sugg didn’t write her book in the first place.

That she didn’t write the book makes the £12 charge grotesque.

The only redeeming feature of the cynical money-grabbing exercise is that it might stimulate a discussion about the ethics of ghost-writing.

What are the arguments for and against the practice of ghost-writing?

Does it matter if the book you just read was not written by the person whose name and picture are inside the flap?

One easy answer is no, of course it doesn’t matter – what matters is whether you enjoyed the book or did not. If you did, who cares who wrote it, and if you didn’t, who cares who wrote it? On this level of consideration, it’s only the material which matters.

But what if you bought the book because you thought it was written by the person whose name and picture were on it? Then would it matter if the book were written by a ghost-writer?

By ‘matter’ I suppose I mean is there any reason to care?

I think there is.

If you buy a book because it was written by someone you admire, yet wasn’t written by the person you admire, then you have nothing of that person, only an empty shell with their name stamped on it. You have actually been sold something in bad faith.

The question can be put other ways.

If you buy a great rock-album because you love the band, does it matter if the music on the record was written and recorded by session musicians, even if the live shows are performed by the band you love?

This isn’t that odd. Many singers and bands go onstage and perform songs written by other people.

What’s the difference between asking a singer to sign the album cover, when the songs inside were not written by her, and asking an ‘author’ to sign the cover of a book she didn’t write?

It could be argued that, in the music example, at least there’s something of the singer on the record – her voice. She is at least the singer, and is not claiming to be the songwriter. The writers (and session musicians) are all credited.

With the novel, the ‘author’ could claim the book contains her characters and story ideas – as the album contains the singer’s voice – but the ‘author’ is claiming to have written the material. Is the claim the difference?

Many persons’ work goes into making and presenting a piece of fiction – be it an opera, musical, rock-album or whatever. In these examples, the work of everyone is not on the cover, but they are credited inside the sleeve-notes, or lower on the poster. Even a film credits the caterers.

But withholding credit, odd as this might sound, isn’t the problem with ghost-writing because I can think of at least one example of a writer being left off the writing-credits of a famous show and there’s no ethical case to answer in that example.

What matters in the example of the ghost-written book is the intention of those putting the book out and what could be guessed about the behaviour of the book’s likely audience.

In other words, if the name of the ghost-writer were on the cover, would the publishers expect the sales to be the same? But that is a question which answers itself because if they did, it wouldn’t be ghost-written in the first place.

This shows – indeed proves – that the considerations for those involved are: maintaining an illusion so that they can make money.

Even though this sounds bad – and is bad – it could be justified, I think. So long as a person believes in taking responsibility for their thoughts and actions, it could be justified. Let me explain.

It depends on the audience.

Say, for instance, a bloke who once served in the SAS started putting out books, and they sold because the audience of middle-aged men liked their special-forces and machine-gun fantasies, right? But let’s say that all those books were ghost-written – is the problem the same as the Zoella example?

Not quite, I’d submit.

The naive behaviour of children, naïve because they are children, is different from the behaviour of adults who should know better.

In other words, there’s a (BIG) difference between being fooled and being a fool.

In other words, exploiting children is worse than exploiting those adults who are old enough to see through the charade.