What I’m watching . . .

The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix TV series/Shirley Jackson book)

When I was about sixteen years old, I read Shirley Jackson’s book The Haunting of Hill House. Jackson first published her haunted house story in 1953 and then ten years later in 1963, the book was made into a black and white movie starring Julie Harris. Now Netflix has come out with a brand new TV series of The Haunting of Hill House (just in time for Halloween) and I have to say, the screen writers did a remarkable job. The Netflix series is refreshingly, not a slasher/gore, horror movie enslaved to haunted house conventions.  It even has a satisfying, if not happy ending, something increasingly unique to the genre.  But more about the new Netflix series later.  First, I’d like to talk a little about the book.

As a young woman, though I liked to read, I’d never read a scary book before The Haunting of Hill House.  In those days not many popular authors wrote horror, especially a story of a bizarre haunted house with serious co-dependent issues. The Haunting of Hill House made such an impression on me at such an impressionable age, I’ve attributed the occasional haunted house dreams I’ve had all my life to reading this book when I was a girl. I can still quote some of the lines Jackson wrote to describe Hill House. She said the house was “insane” and “whoever walked there, walked alone.”

Prior to The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson’s greatest claim to fame was her 1948 short story, The Lottery. Some may be familiar with this shocking tale because it’s been repeatedly anthologized in high school English textbooks. Still, I think The Haunting of Hill House is Jackson’s signature work. Stephen King, our preeminent teller of scary tales, has paid tribute many times to Shirley Jackson and The Haunting of Hill House.

Before the Netflix series, there were at least two film versions of The Haunting of Hill House, one of those being the atmospheric and frightening 1960’s movie. The Netflix production though, has managed to not only capture the essence of Jackson’s story, but successfully elaborate and enrich it. The original book is about a small group of people led by a psychic researcher, who come to Hill House to investigate rumors that it’s haunted.  In the Netflix version, the group exploring the house is a young family. They’ve bought Hill House to renovate and resell it.

Though the acting is wonderful in the new Netflix series what’s really memorable is the way the filmmakers use flashbacks and time sequence to build the mystery surrounding the house. They juxtapose the older, present-day family members currently struggling with trauma from their Hill House experience, with their much younger selves at the time they lived in Hill House. The opening scene begins in the past with the young father loading his children in the family station wagon in the middle of the night.  He’s desperately trying to leave Hill House before any more family members die.

There’s been lots of haunted house tales since Jackson’s book, but what makes her story and the Netflix series so distinct is how the character of the house is portrayed.  It is both a benign reflection of its inhabitants, and something fearfully predatory.  What does Hill House want and why? Behind both Jackson’s story and the Netflix offering, lies the chilling answer.

What I’m writing . . .

Niagara (personal essay)

I’d never been to Niagara Falls but I’ve been to Shoshone Falls, and how different could they be anyway? Shoshone Falls is spectacular despite the fact it sits in the middle of the Idaho desert. But my mother and father honeymooned at Niagara Falls, and on a trip back East near the Niagara area, I decided I couldn’t miss seeing the attraction.

I’m not sure why geological spectacles are considered romantic places, but my husband’s parents honeymooned at Crater Lake, Oregon, another natural wonder. Niagara Falls has a long history as a honeymoon destination. I saw an old movie once staring Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotton about a honeymooning couple at Niagara Falls. That movie, Niagara, came out in 1953, the year I was born and a year after my parents were married. So this trip to the Falls was special. It was a trip about beginnings. About my origin. Likely somewhere close to all the spray and mist generated by the Falls, I’d been conceived.

I decided to call mom and get more details about her and dad’s 1952 trip to Niagara Falls. She reminded me they didn’t just go to Niagara Falls for their honeymoon.  The trip was also part of a job dad had. He’d contracted to drive a traveling religious exhibit of the “Lord’s Last Supper” to the Toronto, Canada National Exhibition (CNE). The CNE was located within fifty miles of Niagara Falls. Mom described the big exhibit truck. She said it had a side panel that could be rolled up to reveal a life-size diorama of wax figures of Jesus and the twelve disciples sitting at a long table.

“What’d you think of Niagara Falls, mom?” I asked her.

“Hmmm. I don’t remember very much. That was so long ago. A lot of water. You know we wrecked the Lord’s Supper exhibit near there, don’t you?”

Mom probably forgot much of Niagara Falls in the aftermath of her and dad’s big accident. After sight-seeing Niagara, dad drove the truck carrying the exhibit through an underpass with a low clearance and sheered off the top. I had visions of Jesus and the disciples decapitated heads rolling along the highway.

Though mom didn’t tell me much to prepare me for the spectacle of Niagara Falls, I was still excited to see it, and I wasn’t disappointed. It is awe-inspiring. A gigantic curtain of water from Lake Erie plunges over a one hundred and sixty-seven foot precipice in a large horse-shoe shape. To compare: Shoshone Falls at flood stage, tumbles 20,000 cubic feet of water per second over its falls. Niagara Falls runs at flood, 202,000 cubic feet per second.

As I stood at the rail and gazed through the mists at Niagara’s plummeting water, I tried to imagine mom and dad here sixty-six years ago, a young couple, slim and dark-haired, with all kinds of hopes and dreams for the future. But the day I visited, it was cold and windy and my jacket got wet from all the falling water. Sometimes, try though you might, you just can’t fully capture the significance of an historic moment. I stood at the edge of Niagara Falls maybe a half hour, thinking about my parents and myself.  Then I took some pictures of the Falls.  Behind me was a Tim Horton’s coffee shop.  I strolled over, got a hot cup of coffee, and pulled out my iPhone.  I was so thankful for my Map App. Finding the quickest route out of the Niagara Falls park and back onto the freeway would not be a problem.

What I’m writing . . .

The Bobcat I Saw (personal essay)

I like to hike Chase’s hill, the one that rises above his house and the Snake River. The gravel road is a steady incline, cut at an angle across the face of the rim rock so the lumbering spud trucks and hay swathers have a more gradual pull to the top. Today, like most days, I used my hike time to sort through all my thoughts. I was thinking about canning tomatoes. I learned to can after I married a farmer, but I hated canning. And though home-canned tomatoes tasted better, it was hard to justify the work when Del Monte tomatoes were so cheap at the store.

I was so deep in my tomato thoughts, the splash in the river didn’t startle me.  Past the rabbit brush and reeds I spotted two sets of long ears and almond-shaped eyes bobbing up and down in the river’s current, heading toward the island. Evidently, the deer had come out to swim and play.  Game was always more active in the fall when the temperatures were cooler.

I stopped and watched the deer a minute before I began my hike up the hill again. We hadn’t any rain to speak of since late spring, so the dirt on the road was like fine, bread flour wafting around the embedded cobbles. I watched my shoes trudge over and around the rocks when an image of my sister Lainey, popped into my head. I needed to call her. Lainey was twelve years younger than me, so we were a different generation.  That was no excuse for not staying in touch though. There’s something comforting about a sibling. They know you and you know them–no matter how far apart in age you are. You know them in familiar, genetic ways. How they use their hands and fingers as they talk, for example.  Just like mom does.  Just like I do.

Lainey’s expressive hands came to mind when I heard the unmistakable hiss of a bull snake laying on the road near me. I’d almost stepped on him. He was just a baby snake, but still he raised his head and flicked his tongue at me, indignant that I was so distracted I hadn’t noticed him. I felt like apologizing for my obtuseness. Of course the snake was important, but it was just that I hadn’t talked to my sister in so long.

I gave the little snake a wide berth, skirting the opposite side of the road where some straggly wild asters bloomed. As dry as it was, I was amazed anything had enough water to survive, much less bloom. I needed to remember to buy the November issue of Idaho Magazine. I’d written an article on the old practice of water witching, something a few men in our farming valley used to do to find water in the desert. I wanted to see how my article looked in print—how it read. Water witching seemed a fitting topic for the season of Halloween, but I wasn’t sure how religious or deeply superstitious readers might feel about the topic.

The trail curved some and when I rounded a bend I was surprised to see yet another wild animal.  This time a coyote was standing in the middle of the road. I thought it was a little strange to see so many creatures on one small hike.  There was something different about this coyote.  Then I realized it wasn’t a coyote at all.  Maybe it was a fox.  No, not a fox, but a very large cat.  I took a step back as I felt a tingle of both excitement and apprehension.  In front of me, two hundred or so feet, was a bobcat, or sometimes called a lynx.  The size of the cat and the sharp, tufted ears were a dead give-away.   I’d hiked the desert and canyons for years and though I’d heard about bobcat sightings, I’d never seen one myself. We stared at each other for several long seconds and then the cat lost interest and skittered up the rocky hill side.

Seeing a bobcat in the wild was a once in a life time experience–and I might have missed him entirely thinking about vegetables and relatives.  I needed to pay better attention when I hiked. I’d been so lost in thought, I was lost to the world also. And there was so much to see. So much to experience.