Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)

No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice. Almost any house, caught unexpectedly or at an odd angle, can turn a deeply humorous look on a watching person; even a mischievous little chimney, or a dormer like a dimple, can catch up a beholder with a sense of fellowship; but a house arrogant and hating, never off guard, can only be evil. This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity. It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed.

My super awesome friend Dan loaned me a copy of one of his favorite books, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959). This book was made into a movie called The Haunting in 1963 (which I have seen and which is awesome) [and remade in 1999 into a movie I haven't seen, but have heard kind of sucks]. And since I liked the old movie so much, I was very excited to check out the book. As you might expect, it was wonderfully great.

Dr. Montague is a supernatural researcher who has finally found the perfect haunted house -- Hill House -- so he rents it out (naturally no one was living there at the time) and writes letters to dozens of people who, for one reason or another, seem like they may be receptive to ghosts and hauntings. Only two people respond: the shy and inexperienced Eleanor, who spent the past decade caring for her sick and recently deceased mother, and who experienced a three day storm of stones on her house after her father died when she was a young girl; and the cynical and urbane and somewhat psychic Theodora who comes out to Hill House from the city on a whim after a big fight with her partner. The doctor and the two women are joined by Luke, the nephew of the woman who currently owns Hill House.

The two women have an instant rapport, and Eleanor is fascinated by all her companions and amazed that they find her interesting and worth talking to. Even when the house starts acting up at night, Eleanor is more happy to be away from her family and out in the world than scared of the supernatural presence. The group spends most of their days joking with each other, exploring the grounds, and making fun of the dour housekeeper. Their nights are spent drinking brandy, playing chess, and eventually going to bed only to be woken up by strange noises in the hallways. Things escalate when Eleanor's name is written on the walls in chalk and blood. Eventually the tight-knit group blows apart -- but is it the fault of the ghosts or the fault of the humans?

Jackson's book is not only genuinely creepy, it is a masterful psychological thriller and a wonderful piece of literature. Our look at this group is through the eyes of Eleanor, a completely sympathetic (and yet also unreliable) narrator who journeys farther than any of the other characters in the book, even though she is only a few hours from her home in the city. And the ending is just perfect. I lovedlovedloved this book and I can't wait to read more of Shirley Jackson's work.

Thanks Dan!

[back cover available here, for all you book cover nerds.]

Friday, June 17, 2011

Abigail Adams by Woody Holton (2009)

My lovely aunt Charlotte lent me her copy of Woody Holton's recent biography of our second First Lady, Abigail Adams (2009).

I will be the first to admit that my geographical knowledge of New England and my ready knowledge about the Revolution is a little muddied. In fact, I always thought pre-Civil War US history was the most boring of the required history classes in high school and college. Sneaking up on the Boston Tea Party, the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the Declaration of Independence, George Washington, the Constitution and all that through the lens of Abigail Adams' life was a nice way to ingest some of the timelines and politics that usually zip right past me.

Abigail was the daughter of a Congregationalist minister in Weymouth, Massachusetts, not far from Boston. As a young woman she met the young lawyer John Adams, who lived in Braintree, Massachusetts, a nearby town. He was initially put off by her outspoken and "giddy" nature, but later praised her for her being "saucy." And throughout their long marriage, the revolution, and John's political career, Abigail never lost the saucyness that she was known for.

Because John was frequently sent to political posts that kept him away from Abigail for months (or years) at a time, the two had a deep and extensive correspondence. There is, in fact, more surviving documentary evidence of Abigail Adams than almost any other 18th century American woman. And that correspondence shows a woman who never shied from decrying the lack of educational opportunities for women; shrewdly invested money that she managed to set aside as her own, often against the wishes of John (even though by law all her property and money belonged to her husband); and closely followed and offered her strong opinion on all the politics of the day.

This was actually a nice companion to World Enough and Time, since it pre-dates and then overlaps with the action of that novel. Of course, the furthest south Abigail goes most of the time is New York (with a few months in the newly constructed White House as its first occupant), and she holds a strong New England prejudice against the southern states (and the French, the English, blacks, foreigners, Catholics, Calvinists, the very rich, and the poor -- with exceptions made in all categories for people she knows personally).

This book is nicely researched and well written. A family tree might have been a nice addition, since the Adams family reproduces widely and everyone seems to have the same names. Holton pushes the feminist angle pretty strongly (Adams is well known for her "Remember the Ladies!" letter to her husband), and while Adams certainly displayed a lifelong interest in the rights and education of women, I think he sometimes holds her relationship with John up as more unusually egalitarian than it really was. Most of all, you get a real sense for the every day life of the period -- the problems that distance (even what now seems like a small distance) put on communication; the parallels between the federalists / anti-federalists and today's politicians; the economy crippling speculation and real estate bubbles after the war; and a truly moving exchange when Abigail's daughter finds a lump in her breast and has to be convinced to get a mastectomy. I'm very glad I had a chance to read this book.

[And if you'd like a taste of Abigail's "saucy" and extensive correspondence with her husband, you are in luck because the Massachusetts Historical Society has put 1160 of them online. And yesterday, while I was finishing this book, I saw a link to this news story of a newly uncovered letter from Abigail!]

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Hate Annual #9 by Peter Bagge (2011)

In his latest installment in the Buddy and Lisa saga, Peter Bagge takes us back to Lisa's estranged homestead when her mom calls to tell her that her dad has Alzheimers. Lisa hasn't seen her parents in over a decade, and they've never met Buddy or Harold, so the whole family comes along and while they are there, more than one skeleton comes out of the closet. Best of all, though, are Bagge's expressive and exaggerated drawings and the goofy niceness of the Buddy that we've gotten to know over decades of comics. This one in particular made me want to go back and re-read our other anthologies. Go Buddy!

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

World Enough and Time by Robert Penn Warren (1950)

"Therefore I searched my books for what truth might be beyond the bustle of the hour and the empty lusts of time."

My next stop on the western canon caravan is Robert Penn Warren's delightfully melodramatic and engagingly uneven World Enough and Time (1950). Warren is best known for his novel about Louisiana politics, All the King's Men, and while I haven't read that one (although I will because it is also on this list, along with Warren's Selected Poems), I can only imagine that World Enough and Time does for 1820s Kentucky politics what All the King's Men did for 1930s Louisiana.

I mentioned that the book is uneven and melodramatic, and usually I'd view that as a negative, but in this case, the uneven and melodramatic narrative perfectly matches the uneven and melodramatic nature of the two main characters, Jeremiah Beaumont and his infatuation, and later wife, Rachael Jordon.

Jeremiah grows up in rural eastern Kentucky in the late 18th / early 19th century. It was a time when the state had just recently stopped being the wild frontier, where memories of wars with the Indians (and the British) were still fresh, and every tavern had an old uncivilized hunter sitting in the corner and spinning tales. It was a land of people who, for whatever reason, had to leave and strike west to make their fortune, which leads to a lot of dissatisfied wives clinging to their good family names and wishing they were back in Virginia. It was also, of course, a time of slavery, although Warren doesn't let that enter much into the story.

A learned neighbor of Jeremiah's sets up a school, and he proves to be a quick student. When he becomes a young man, his teacher introduces Jeremiah to one of his good friends, Colonel Cassius Fort, a lawyer and politician who invites Jeremiah to Frankfort to study law under Fort's instruction and mentorship. Jeremiah does just that, staying in Frankfort with the carefree Wilkie Barron and his widowed mother, and getting involved in some heated politics. When Wilkie gets into a passion over a girl named Rachael Jordon who has been taken advantage of and impregnated by Fort, Jeremiah drops everything to insinuate himself into her life and avenge her name.

The story is closely based on the almost too tragically romantic to be true "Kentucky Tragedy." If you want to keep the bulk of the plot a secret, you obviously shouldn't read the Wikipedia article about it, but I would argue that the strength of this book comes from its layered build-up and relentless punishment of its characters, and not from the actions of the crime or the findings of the trial. And if you agree with me, or if you don't think you'll ever read this book, then you should definitely read about the tragedy. The one part I'm unsure about liking in the novel is towards the end where it drastically swings away from the true story, but the more I think about it the more I like where Warren took me.

And even better than where he takes you, is how you get there. Just sample some of this, and try to resist reading it out loud:

"He belonged to that old race of Devil-breakers who were a terror and a blessing across the land, men who had been born to be the stomp-and-gouge bully of a tavern, the Indian fighter with warm scalps at his belt, the ice-eyed tubercular duelist of a county courthouse, the half-horse, half-alligator abomination of a keelboat, or a raper of women by the cow pen, but who got their hot prides and cold lusts short-circuited into obsessed hosannas and a ferocious striving for God's sake."

"'Ah, gentlemen,' [Lancaster] said, 'I trust that I do not intrude.' He spoke in a slow, very musical voice, which caressed the ear. But no one answered a word, and those lips which apparently were designed for 'An expression of melancholy, almost female sweetness, drew back as from long practice into a twisted, thinning smile which made you think of new silk being ripped by a careless blade for wantonness or in hatred and contempt.... 'And I'll remember what you said to me when we met,' Lancaster said, and smiled again, but this time a smile of pitying friendliness, so sweet and sincere that you took that face to be the face of your dearest other self.

It should come as no surprise that Warren is the only person that has won the Pulitzer Prize for both fiction and poetry.

This one takes some slogging, but it is necessary and so worth it. If you have any love for tragic romance, psychological drama, or Kentucky, then you should give it a shot.

[p.s. I can't believe I forgot to mention this above, but the whole book is narrated by a contemporary historian telling the story of Jeremiah and Rachael through archival documents and Jeremiah's prison narrative justifying his actions. That's right: Archives!]