Writing Excuses 16.30: First Page Fundamentals: The Haunting of Hill House
Key points: Voice! Sanity and dreams. The main character is the house. Two main ways to start a novel, action-driven and voice-driven. For voice-driven, the narrator ruminates on an important idea, something that gives urgency and stakes. Pay attention to punctuation, to how that emphasizes important things. Establish your authority. Tell the reader, up front, “I am going to tell you a story. Here is what the story is.” Then tell them the story. Establish expectations, and subvert them. Imply menace at the corners.
[Season 16, Episode 30]
[Dongwon] This is Writing Excuses, First Page Fundamentals: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Dongwon] I’m Dongwon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dongwon] So, this week we’re going to do a deep dive into an example here. We’re talking about, again, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. So, to start, Mary Robinette, would you mind reading the first paragraph for us all, so we’re all on the same page, as it were?
[Mary Robinette] The Haunting of Hill House.
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 the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so 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.
[Dongwon] This really is one of my all-time favorite openings of a novel in the English language. I think it does so many things right. This is, first off, a great example of how you use voice to establish what your book is. One thing that we, I think, don’t really talk about enough when it comes to voice is the musicality, poetry of what she has done here. There’s such an elegant rhythm to it that Mary Robinette brought out so wonderfully there that it flows in this way that you get into this sort of… Lulled into this particular state of mind by, and you have this dreamlike quality, which, again, is reflected by this idea that larks and katydids also dream. Right? That, in tension with this idea of conditions of absolute reality, and then connecting that again to sanity. Right? So all of these elements are immediately put on the page of… We’re in this sort of hypnagogic dreamlike state. We’re dealing with concepts of mental illness and madness. Then we are introduced to the main character of the book. That main character is the house itself.
[Mary Robinette] One of the things that I find particularly compelling about this example is… There are kind of two sort of ways of starting a novel. There’s one that is sort of action-driven, which is what we usually focus on. Then there are voice-driven ones. Which are this thing where you take an idea and the narrator ruminates on it. It’s something that is important. So there’s something within this first paragraph that is also giving you a sense of the urgency, the thing that is important, the thing that is at stake here. That there is this house that so sense… The door is sensibly shut, that it’s upright and it’s holding darkness within. It’s giving you a sense of “Oh, there’s something terrible that is coming.” But it never names what that terrible is. It’s just making you this promise through what is important to the character, and the character is the house.
[Dongwon] It’s such a quiet way to start. I mean, it’s such a description of just a house and then some stuff about dreams and sanity, right? But really, fundamentally, the core of this paragraph is describing the fact that it’s a well-built, well put together house. That is what it is. It’s stood for a long time. It’s probably going to keep standing for more. But then you end on that final turn, which is such like a delightful moment for me, which is, “Whatever walked there, walked alone.” It’s just this way of slipping the knife in right at the end of all of that lovely description, all of that sort of smooth beautiful rhythmic description. That the menace that’s been building over the course of this paragraph sort of culminates in this moment of… There’s going to be that moment of surprise, there’s going to be that dark twist to this book. Again, that reflects the structure of the book, that reflects what Shirley Jackson is doing over the course of this story, of giving the characters, of giving them this experience, and writing in this very elevated way. But still, it’s going to have that bite. There’s still going to be that moment when the character twists and something is not right. Yup?
[Mary Robinette] I want to… Since we are doing a deep dive on this. I actually want you, the listener to go to the Writing Excuses webpage and look at the first paragraph which we will have in the liner notes. The reason I want you to look at it is I want you to look at how she has structured this. So, as a narrator, one of the things that I look at is punctuation. She is placing those commas, those periods, the semicolon… She’s placing those very deliberately to provoke causes. Those pauses draw a line underneath things that are important. So where are the pauses that occur in this? Under conditions of absolute reality. We have a semi-colon. The larks and katydids are supposed by some to dream. There’s this thing that’s like some people think this, some people don’t, you’re going to have to make your own decision, is what she’s doing right there. Hill House, not sane. Again, she sets that apart with those commas. We get to holding darkness within. That semi-colon again to just kind of punctuate that. Then, to really draw a line under the… What the thrust of this entire thing is, it’s the very last clause of that opening thing, of that opening paragraph. Walked alone. With a comma, and then the period, and then the paragraph break. You step back slightly before that. And whatever walked there. That’s also set apart and she’s drawing attention to it very consciously, I suspect, with the way she’s imagining the rhythmic quality of this language. So when we’re talking about voice, this is one of the things that you can be doing. I’m not saying your writing must have a bajillion commas and semicolons. What I’m saying is use them consciously. Don’t think about them so much grammatically. The grammar exists to describe and codify the ways that we naturally group language. What you’re thinking about is where am I grouping my thoughts. What is important, what is the thing that I want to set apart so the reader can see it, and what are the things that I want to draw a line under?
[Howard] The very first line re-contextualizes what we are being told several times as it unfolds. Most people don’t read this slowly. But. No. Live organism. Okay. No live organism. What am I being told? No live organism can continue. That’s pretty bleak. For long. Okay, that’s less bleak. To exist. Sanely. The word sanely has suddenly re-contextualized everything else. It’s not existential, it’s sanity. Under conditions of absolute reality. As the little things reveal, that sentence drives me screaming into the Gothic horror of the haunting of Hill House. I… To be honest, I have not read the full book. Exploring this first line convinces me that I might not like that ride.
[Howard] But the poetry with which that very first line is constructed is absolutely beautiful. That’s the sort of promise that I like to be made, I like to be the recipient of, early in the book.
[Dan] I am really loving the… Just the little clause, not sane. I mean, it’s… The w… So much of this is beautiful. But that one in particular. Not only the suggestion that a house can have or not have sanity, which is fascinating by itself, and which does set up, like Dongwon said, the idea that the house is the character. But, compared to that first sentence, and I, like Howard, have never actually read this so I’m coming in cold and I would love to know if I’m wrong about this. But he’s basically saying that in order to have sanity, you have to escape reality sometimes. The fact that the house is not sane implies then that maybe it does exist under conditions of absolute reality. That what we’re about to see is not a dream, it’s actually real things that are happening. Which takes away some of our safety net and makes this not only kind of unexpected, but also more dangerous.
[Dongwon] [garbled] with that not sane… Every time I hit that line, like, the whole theater audience in my head leaps to its feet and starts cheering…
[Dongwon] Like, every time I hit that moment, I’m just like… This is not sane. How did you do this? How do you make me feel this unsettled by that tiny appositive? That tiny, comma-framed phrase there? But. Anyway.
[Mary Robinette] Let’s give the reader or listener a moment of feeling slightly safer. We’ll talk about the book of the week.
[Mary Robinette] We’ll take you away from Hill House just for a moment and talk about our book of the week. Which is prep for next week. That’s Moby Dick. You’re going to tell us a little bit about that, right, Dongwon?
[Dongwon] Yeah. So, we’re going to talk about the opening page of Moby Dick. Probably one of the most famous lines, opening sentences, in English literature. But when I mention Moby Dick by Herman Melville, I can sort of in my brain hear a large percentage of the audience groaning at the idea that they have to read this ponderous weighty novel. I felt that way for a long time, until I read it sort of in my mid to late 20s. I finally sat down and I was like, “Fine. I’m going to read this thing. Everyone talks about it.” I was completely surprised by the book that I actually found. That wasn’t this dry tome. It’s funny and it’s deeply strange. There’s like whole chapters that are just talking about whale biology and then long descriptions of like what whaling actually is. It’s dark. I cannot overstate how strange of a book this is. It doesn’t feel like anything else I’ve ever read. It’s so… It’s such an interesting examination of the human experience, of what it is to be in the world and figure out how to survive within it under these conditions. I love this book. It’s not going to be for everybody, but I promise it’s not the book that your English class taught you that it was going to be.
[Mary Robinette] So, ah…
[Howard] The book that my English class taught me was a… Like, 50 page Cliff’s Notes of Moby Dick.
[Howard] That does not do that book justice.
[Dongwon] It absolutely does not.
[Dan] You’re not supposed to admit that out loud.
[Mary Robinette] So, that is Moby Dick by Herman Melville. So go ahead and read that for next week.
[Mary Robinette] Meanwhile, we are going to continue talking about The Haunting of Hill House. Because there are other things that it is setting up in here besides just “Oh, this is really, really good juicy voice-y thing.”
[Dongwon] The thing I want to draw everyone’s attention to is… The punctuation is masterful. I mean, I think we focused on that for a long time for a good reason, but the effect of that on the reader, I think, is establishing an iron grip over your brain in this moment. She establishes an enormous amount of authority, of I am telling the story to you, and I am going to tell it my way. It’s going to be distinct and unusual. But also, she just establishes this complete authority. That’s one of the things you need to do to the reader in your opening page is tell them, “I am a good writer. You want to spend time here, because I’m good at this.” Right? I think she does that in this way by manipulating the rhythm, by manipulating the punctuation, by doing unexpected and sort of things that you’re quote unquote not supposed to do. She breaks some rules, but she does it in a way that’s very masterful. So, I think, one of the lessons you can take here is to aim for this kind of authority. Which isn’t necessarily meaning like you can break the rules in the same way that she does. But find a way to be as compelling and convincing of your mastery of language in your mastery of scene and setting and all those things as she does here.
[Dan] It strikes me, Dongwon, and tell me if I’m wrong about the book as a whole, but this opening paragraph is using a lot of the same tools and playing with a lot of the same toys as Lovecraft. That first sentence in particular is incredibly Lovecraftian, but in a much more sophisticated way than he ever was. Just the way that it is kind of combining these concepts of supernatural and science, directly. Phrases like no live organism and absolute reality. Then, at the same time, this is about a house that’s not sane and katydids that dream. It’s a really sophisticated combination of those very specific tools that Lovecraft used to establish the tone and the atmosphere.
[Dongwon] I think there’s some… Yeah, I think there’s a similar preoccupation with sort of this concept of insanity and the very specific way that… We don’t really talk about it this way anymore for probably very good reasons. But she also has flipped it on its head in so many ways because instead of viewing the cosmic horror that breaks your brain, the thing that breaks your brain is absolute reality. It’s having to be present with no ability to dream, no ability to escape sort of modernity in all of its like groundedness, and the concreteness of this house. So I kind of love the way that she has inverted that in this way and how the language just pushes you immediately into that space, and, I think, is in conversation with it, but I think in a way that says, “Lovecraft, you wish you could do this.” Right?
[Dan] Yeah, exactly.
[Mary Robinette] [garbled]
[Dongwon] You wish you could dream the… To reach this level. So, yeah.
[Howard] I’m reading and rereading… I printed it out so I can have it in front of me as we’re having this discussion. I realized that the thing that is not stated explicitly per se, but which is inextricably related to us, is that Hill House is a living organism.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Howard] Well, wow. That’s a promise that I bet gets fulfilled later in the book.
[Mary Robinette] So, this thing that you just noted. This is a thing that I adore when an author does, when they demonstrate through all of the contextual clues that something is alive. She is not being coy about the fact that Hill House is a living organism. She spending a great deal of time letting us know that it’s a living organism. In someone else’s hands, that discovery would come later. That would be the I don’t want them to know this thing. The big reveal is going to be the house is alive and the whole thing is from the house’s point of view. That’s not what she… She’s right up front. This is a living organism. It is not sane. You’re going to spend the next however many pages inhabiting that. Literally and metaphorically. This is… We’ve talked about getting the reader to trust you at the beginning. These are all things that she is doing with very deliberate choices. She’s not being coy about the central thing. The interesting geewhiz factor. Which is that the house is alive.
[Dan] Yeah. And…
[Mary Robinette] You can absolutely do that. There are plenty of examples of being coy with the central… Sixth Sense. But how interesting it is when you go in, and it causes all of the stakes to shift, and become so much more immediate because you have that connection with the character.
[Dongwon] To me, it’s always such a plus when a writer can start and tell you, “Here’s what the story is,” and then proceed to take you to the story. But when they’ve told you up front, “Here’s what’s going to happen,” I just love that because it’s setting expectations and then fulfilling them. As a reader, for me, one of the most satisfying things is being told, “I’m going to tell you a good story. Here’s what the story is.” Then they tell me the story. I’m like, “Yup. That was great. Thank you for that. Let’s do it again sometime.”
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Because the other thing that happens when they do this is this is what the story is. And it’s not going to go down the way you think it is.
[Dan] Yeah. Well, she is telling us that right off the bat. She’s establishing expectations, but also she is subverting them. Imagine any haunted house. It is going to be dark and creaky and full of… There will be weird breezes coming through because the walls don’t meet. No. This house, the walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm. Doors were sensibly shut. This is not the kind of haunted house we are accustomed to. That by itself makes it more menacing. In the same way as like the introduction to Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs. He is clean, he’s well shaven, he’s not the creepy monster we thought. Neither is this house. Yet, there is still some menace to it. The fact that the doors have been shut is sensible. Which is just implying this menace at the corners of the story in a house that looks completely harmless.
[Mary Robinette] So, we are going to give you some homework. I’m actually going to give you two pieces of homework. Or three. One is Moby Dick. The other is there’s an adjacent story that I want you to read. It’s called Open House on Haunted Hill by John Wiswell. It’s nominated for the Nebula. I think it’s nominated for all of the awards this year. It’s fantastic. It’s basically what happens if you go to an open house at a place like Hill House. It’s fantastic. Then, the last piece of homework that I have is your actual home, is that I want you to write an introduction to your book that is a voice-driven opening. So, this is going to be something that is… You’re just doing description. There’s no action. There’s no dialogue. It’s not about a person doing a thing. It’s about a thing that matters deeply to the fundamental core of the story, and that you’re just going to take some time and describe it. Inhabit that. Think about tone and setting and stakes and bring us all of those things that you would normally bring us through action through your descriptive text.
[Mary Robinette] So. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.