by Amy Alexander
“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.”
So begins Shirley Jackson’s novel, “The Haunting of Hill House,” a book that went, I might argue, largely under-appreciated--until Netflix launched a show based on it this past autumn.
It took me a good while to start watching the show, mainly because, as a lifelong fan of Jackson’s work, I was expecting an exact rubber stamp of the novel. The show delivered nothing like this, but a new story that, by its chilling conclusion, became somewhat of an bingey obsession for me.
I had to watch the show twice before I grasped, with an a-ha moment that shook me to my core: Hill House is not really about a house at all, but about brains and bodies and families that grow up around mental illness and trauma. (Content warning: This show includes several brutal story lines that might be difficult for anyone who has dealt with addiction, assault, suicide or mental illness.)
I’ve been thinking about this notion for several days, now, and this caused me to get out my trusty “Man, Myth and Magic” encyclopedia to read what it had to say on the subject of houses. The entire seven page essay about the significance of houses in folklore was so good, I wanted to fold it into a Louisiana king cake and eat it for dessert (I promise that Man, Myth & Magic, long out of print, has not paid for this endorsement, but it really is worth purchasing from an antique book store if you love folklore. I wrote about it in last month’s installment of Campfire Wires.). Of particular fascination, for me, was this take from author Eric Maple:
“There are mystics who have seen, in a house, with its storeys (sic), doors and windows, a psychic projection of the human body with its various layers and apertures. It is certain that the sophisticated symbolists of our present age have endowed the house with qualities that would have been inconceivable before the development of psychoanalysis, as for example in the interpretation of dreams in which it is said to represent the different layers of the psyche.”
Off the top of my head (no pun intended, or else I should say, from the attic), I can think of so many pieces of writing from history and today that do a wonderful job of using the house as a source of inspiration. There’s Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” for instance, and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
Most recently, editor Kristin Garth’s Pink Plastic House Journal, inspired by her chapbook of the same title published by Maverick Duck Press, launches next month and will feature works of literature as actual rooms. You can find it on Rhythm & Bones Press’s website. Garth, incidentally, is also editor, along with Justin Karcher, of “Mansion,” an anthology of Slenderman poetry.
Lately, I’ve stumbled upon a secret in my own family that, I have come to realize, is the ultimate source of a chapbook of poetry I’ve written called “The House You Carry Inside You.”
It’s odd that the energy emanating from this family secret, which filled and flavored every corner of my childhood psyche, would have come into full expression in my own poetry as a house before I knew the secret itself.
I see this as proof that our writing minds often know things before we do. This dynamic is one that will always keep me coming back to the page and will continually, to some degree, send a delicious chill down my spine. What’s your favorite manifestation of houses in literature? I’d love it if you tweeted it to me @iriemom.
Advice to my Younger Self
by Amy Alexander
From The House You Carry Inside You
She’s still here, my younger self
Xanadu tee shirt, muppets on a shelf,
Buster Brown shoes, a puppy inside,
I wanted to take it home with me, hide
and seek friend, I always had the best spots,
obvious to mothers, camouflage to me, pots
I kicked over to watch the soil fall, hear my dad yell,
hairy root up, flower down, I guess I’d tell her be careful,
or maybe not. I can’t pull her out
she lives here, the younger me, in me, with her stupid decisions about
playing and animals and boys on skateboards
and she has advice for me, too, as old age lurches forward
Amy Alexander is a writer and artist from Baton Rouge whose work has appeared most recently in Anti-Heroin Chic, Cease, Cows, The Mojave Heart Review, and Dirty Paws Review. She holds a master's degree in folklore from the University of Louisiana. Her chapbook, "The Legend of the Kettle Daughter," is forthcoming in April of 2019 from Hedgehog Poetry Press. Follow her on Twitter @iriemom.