The Uninvited: Macardle’s Political Ghost Story

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It moved smoothly forward. The white, flowing shroud was a gown now and I saw hands. They were poised over the banister rail…as though the mist was crystallizing, the outlines were defined gradually…

Rarely had a ghost been described this directly, this unapologetically, in mainstream fiction. Dorothy Macardle’s Uneasy Freehold was published in 1942 in the British Isles. For its US edition, the novel would attain its more familiar title, The Uninvited.

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Tramp Press’s recent edition of the 1942 classic novel, The Uninvited/Uneasy Freehold

Readers of the time were no doubt taken aback by an approach which must have reminded them of photographs from a medium’s parlour. The norms of supernatural fiction had long been defined by avoiding the obvious. Edgar Allan Poe, America’s most iconic master of horror, for instance, tended to employ dense allegories and explore themes of insanity. Poe’s fearful sights and sounds projected the psychological dysfunctions of the protagonists rather than sentient spirits returning from the dead. M.R James, perhaps Britain’s most famous ghost story specialist, was interested in malign supernatural forces. But typically he gave his readers only glimpses of visceral terror through the distance of secondhand narratives in the form of letters, reported conversations, and forgotten manuscripts.

Macardle’s ghost story with its coils of ectoplasm, seen by an undeniably sane protagonist in the modern age, represented a broadside attack upon the genre’s subtler conventions.

While Macardle’s frankness likely challenged reader expectations, it would be a mistake to imagine there was anything simple about either the story or its writer. Macardle was one the most sophisticated authors of her time, and Uneasy Freehold/The Uninvited is a challenging and, in many senses, political novel (I will avoid obvious spoilers).

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Feminist, author, and renaissance woman, Dorothy Macardle.

The plot involves a literary critic and budding playwright Roddy Fitzgerald and his younger sister Pamela who leave their Bloomsbury home to seek a rural idyll in Devon. For years, we are told, twenty-something Pamela has been sole carer for an ailing parent who is now deceased. This classic ‘woman’s role’ for an unmarried daughter has left Pamela in urgent need of rejuvenation. She and her brother do find their refuge, or so they think, in Cliff End, an isolated house overlooking the sea.

After purchasing the property from austere retired naval commander, Commodore Brooke — who is acting for his nineteen-year-old granddaughter, Stella Meredith — they settle in only to discover that the rumors of disturbances at Cliff End have more substance than they might have wished.

Macardle invokes atmosphere slowly: The rain ceased; the last smoldering log crumbled and died into white ash. The curious, living stillness, with a tremor of the invisible in it, that de la Mare creates in his stories, possessed the place.

A grief-stricken moan is heard through the night. A night-light is seen in the former nursery, and an overpowering scent of mimosa pervades the home at odd hours of darkness. At other times the siblings experience a dreadful cold and a sense of evil on the main staircase.

While Roddy and Pamela theorize about past trauma seeping into the fabric of a home — a variation of the “stone tape” theory — one thing becomes clear. Every time Stella Meredith, now a friend of the Fitzgeralds, visits her former home the haunting seems to intensify.

Seeking an explanation, they discover that Stella’s mother Mary Meredith died after falling from the cliff near the home fifteen years before. A second death occurred in the house soon after. A Spanish woman named Carmel, model to Mary’s artist husband, succumbed to pneumonia while under the care of Mary’s friend, Nurse Holloway.

Gradually, through the testaments of the townspeople and former acquaintances, Roddy and Pamela build two character portraits. Model Carmel, they hear, was a volatile, spiteful homewrecker who’d been having an affair with Mary’s husband. Mary, in contrast, was revered as the ideal wife and mother.

To the elderly local priest, Father Anson, Mary was “almost a saint.” To Stella, her mother “never told a lie in her life.” To Commander Brooke, she was an “unstained, saintly spirit.”

Mary is said to have taken in the vicious Carmel, despite the affair with her husband, and to have willingly submitted to her artist spouse’s infidelities and cruelties. As a mother to Stella she was disciplined and rigorous, and Stella, with encouragement from her grandfather, idolizes her memory.

When the haunting threatens Stella, Pamela and Roddy believe it is the spirit of Carmel returned to seek vengeance on the daughter of the home she ruined.

The plot panders cleverly to the reader’s prejudices. When holes appear in these portraits of Mary and Carmel, when it becomes clear that Carmel was wronged and that Mary, far from being a saint, was quite deliberately building the myth of her own perfection, it is a sucker punch. We, like Pamela and Roddy, feel we have been fooled by our own expectations.

The Fitzgeralds are not randomly chosen in terms of background and culture. Half English, half Irish, they are international in outlook. Bohemian friends from London visit Cliff End and articulate one of Macardle’s  themes. Artist Max complains that they live in an era when “life is reduced to some crude, fanatical party creed.”

He is referring, of course, to the rise of Fascism across Europe, but Macardle had her own brief which lay closer to home.

A feminist and Irish Republican, Macardle viewed the newly-minted Irish Constitution in 1937 as a betrayal of the ideals of  the 1916 proclamation. The earlier document had promised to deliver gender equality in Ireland. Macardle was critical of the Constitution’s focus on the role of the mother in the home, a kind of faux-veneration which served only to disempower women in practical terms.

In a recent edition of The Uninvited published by Tramp Press, an excellent introduction by Luke Gibbons, Professor of Irish Literary and Cultural Studies at Maynooth University, expands on Macardle’s theme of motherhood. Gibbons takes the reader to the premiere of the 1944 movie of The Uninvited at the Savoy Cinema, Dublin. The showing was attended by none other than Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Eamon de Valera, close friend of Macardle.

“Typical Dorothy,” de Valera was heard to say after the screening.

De Valera apparently saw the story’s take on the “cult of the saintly mother” as a riposte to his own work as the Constitution’s sole author. There was no love in any of Mary’s acts of apparent self-sacrifice, Macardle seems to tell us. This is a challenging message in a novel with several other subversive twists.

In the end it is Pamela who pieces together the true story while her brother provides the novel’s narration. The reader, firmly in Roddy’s point of view, is encouraged to view Pamela as he does — as illogical, vulnerable to hysteria, and in need of his special protection.

Pamela is, in fact, way ahead of Roddy and all his friends in terms of understanding the haunting, but she must pussyfoot around their egos as they (in modern parlance) “mansplain” to her that she is deceived by a too active imagination.

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“Typical Dorothy,” Macardle’s ghost story which hit  the screen in 1944

The 1944 movie that seemed to irritate de Valera is remarkably faithful in most regards to Macardle’s novel. Directed by Lewis Allen with a screenplay by Dodie Smith and Frank Partos, the Paramount production reduces the number of characters, eliminates the priest, Father Anson, and turns Roddy (Ray Milland) into a composer, which allows for the melodic theme by Victor Young to heighten the romantic elements of the story.

Gail Russell  gives an appropriately otherworldly performance as the troubled Stella, and Donald Crisp is her forbidding grandfather, renamed Commander Beech.

The film has a very special kind of cult status among genre filmmakers. Movies often play conscious tribute by having characters quote directly from the 1944 screenplay. Ghost Stories, the 2017 Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman supernatural thriller is the most recent example.

One aspect, somewhat underplayed from the novel, is Pamela Fitzgerald. Ruth Hussey, though well cast as a demure, intelligent Pamela, is not given the scope afforded to her character in Macardle’s original.

When, in the novel, Pamela explains to Stella and her grandfather that she is a namesake of a famous Irish rebel, Commander Brooke is not amused. Later in the same conversation he disparages the Celtic Welsh with an unfavourale comparison with the more reliable Devon stock.

Commander Brooke and Pamela Fitzgerald are polar opposites. The Commander represents an insular Anglo-Saxon point of view complete with unhealthy emotional repression. Pamela is a half Celt with global interests and a respect for the intuitive senses. It’s possible to see in Pamela an aspect of Macardle’s younger self.

By the time Macardle wrote Uneasy freehold/The Uninvited she had already led a remarkably dramatic life as an activist as well as a leading journalist and author. She had been imprisoned during the Irish Civil War in 1922 after opposing the Anglo-Irish (partition) Treaty, and had also been on hunger strike. In the 1930s she worked as a journalist with the League of Nations and became a vocal opponent of the Nazis. During this time and later she became an advocate for children who had been psychologically traumatized by occupation and war.

One aspect of supernatural fiction is a sense of being closed off in a world with rules quite separate from real life. This can be one of the genre’s comforts and sometimes one of its limitations. The most striking quality about Uneasy Freehold/The Uninvited is the extent to which Macardle’s varied life is in evidence in the novel.

The Uninvited is a rare thing, a ghost story with its finger on the pulse of society and world politics.

 

See blog articles related to supernatural fiction:

Ghosts and the Radio

Visible Demons and Unseen Fears: M.R. James and The Night of the Demon

Little Strangers and haunted Mansions, Part II: The Films

Little Strangers and Haunted Mansions

Note to publishers wishing to send reissued classic fiction or new fiction for possible review on this blog, please email me (using ‘Contact Me’ page) to arrange submission. Thanks!

Paul Butler is the author of The Widow’s Fire (Inanna) and the forthcoming Mina’s Child (Inanna, slated for 2020).

 

 

 

 

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Little Strangers and Haunted Mansions, Part II: The Films

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Adrift in an endless night of murmuring voices and unexplained sounds, Eleanor Vance watches as the relief pattern in the bedroom wallpaper seems to reveal a rudimentary face. Eyes and a nose emerge from the leaf shaped swirls. The murmuring goes on and the waking nightmare continues.

Is the face real or are her eyes playing tricks?

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Endless Nights in Hill House, 1963 movie poster for The Haunting.

This is an effect from the symphony of queasy, monochrome horror that makes up the 1963 film, The Haunting. It’s one of the relatively few images not taken directly from the source novel, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959) which is discussed in Part I along with Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger.

The film, like the book, involves four people arriving at the Hill House of the title as part of a paranormal investigation. Two of them, Eleanor (Julie Harris) and Theodora (Claire Bloom), have incidents in the past which suggest psychic powers. A third, Luke (Russ Tamblyn), is the heir of the property, and the presiding academic Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) makes up the fourth.

The Haunting was produced and directed by Robert Wise, a prestige filmmaker who had recently completed West Side Story (1959) and would soon begin work on The Sound of Music (1965).

Wise had specific genre credentials too. As a former member of Val Lewton’s RKO film unit he had directed The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945), ‘quiet horror’ films which explore the characters’ psychological world and deal with emotional resonance as well as visceral shocks.

The Haunting is remembered as one of horror’s exceptional films.

At 114 minutes it has a  much longer running time than most. It also adheres more closely to its source novel than was the norm; at the time the genre was dominated by Roger Corman’s liberal reinterpretations of Poe (in the US) and Hammer’s gothic horrors (in the UK). Filmed in Britain with a part-American, part-British cast and crew, The Haunting is hard to match with other ‘like-minded’ movies.

The film does deviate from Jackson’s novel, but not necessarily in ways an audience would expect. The Haunting of Hill House takes place both inside and out. From a stream in the grounds protagonist Eleanor glimpses the first, possibly supernatural, occurrence as some kind of creature scurries through the high grass towards the Hill House. Several other supernatural incidents occur in the grounds.

The Haunting, in contrast to the novel, is entirely about oppressive interiors — an odd reversal given that filmmakers so often talk about “opening up” the action. These sets were designed by art director Elliot Scott and create a pressure cooker environment, a sense that the characters are trapped with their fears and neuroses as the ghostly occurrences escalate.

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Oppressive Interiors and Monochrome Nightmares, The Haunting 1963

 

Eleanor’s backstory changes little from that described in the novel. A long-time caregiver for her late invalid mother, she is both angry at the wasted years and riddled with guilt at having slept through her mother’s final hours.

Elsewhere, however, the character map is simplified. In the original story no one is a confirmed skeptic. In the film, Hill House heir Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), fulfills this somewhat single-note role. The intended effect is to bring an expected dual of philosophies between ‘believers’ and ‘disbelievers’ — hardly present in the novel — into a central thematic position.

Jackson’s original concept of Luke is far more complex. In the novel he is a wryly sophisticated character whose surface self-confidence masks his stunted emotional development. Seeing a parallel, if not kindred, spirit in Eleanor, Luke confides he never knew his mother. The reduction of Luke to conventional wise-cracking cynic in The Haunting is forgivable given that a film either fails or succeeds on whether or not it scares its audience.

Wise also transforms Jackson’s seasoned, middle-aged professor Dr. Montague’s into handsome young Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) so that Eleanor’s fantasies can include a possible love affair with him. When Dr. Markway’s wife arrives to dash Eleanor’s hopes, we find the doctor’s wife is a fervently rational woman who despises her husband’s pastime.

Jackson’s Mrs. Montague is the direct opposite of Wise’s Mrs. Markway. Mrs. Montague arrives late in the novel to lambast her husband not for his supernatural beliefs but for failing to use Ouija or Planchette. Mrs. Montague represents, rather comically, the superstitious side of spiritualism. Her reliance in the trappings of the modern mystic throws into sharp relief the disturbingly real and unusual events at Hill House.

Like its source novel, The Haunting does not try to “solve” the question of whether the hauntings are created by Eleanor’s  telekinetic powers or by the survival after death of the previous owner’s personality. Luke’s final words — Hill House should be “pulled down and sewn with salt” — provides a kind of inverted symmetry; here is the skeptic moving over to the opposite side, a fitting finale given that Hill House itself has been designed as an architectural conundrum.

The Haunting has certainly stood the test of time and is by most measures it’s also a successful adaptation which respects the atmosphere and intent of Jackson’s novel.

This year saw the release of another haunted house novel adaptation, The Little Stranger. Like The Haunting of Hill House, The Little Stranger is one of those novels which, read in advance, would appear to defy filming.

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Like The Haunting of Hill House there is no clear cut apparition, no ectoplasm, and no very obvious  moments of supernatural shock. Also, like The Haunting, the point of view of its protagonist is the most unsettling aspect of the novel.

Depressed by the post World War II changes in England, Dr. Faraday, the former “village boy,” aspires to join the fading aristocracy.

It’s a curious desire at this point in history as the Ayres family who own the once grand Hundreds Hall are barely holding things together. Novelist Sarah Waters describes the flavour of late 1940s gloom so vividly reader feels the cling of the farmyard mud surrounding the Ayreses’ house.

Waters even manages to breathe new life into the despised adverb: A mop rests “sourly” in its bucket; young landowner Roderick Ayres’s cigarette smoke floats “bluely” from his roll up cigarette.

Faraday, the son of a former Hundreds Hall servant, finds himself seduced by visions of the Ayreses’ former glory. Admitted to the sitting room after tending to a servant Faraday sees that “the essential loveliness of the room stood out, like the handsome bones behind a ravaged face . . . the light was soft and mildly tinted, and seemed held, really embraced and held, by the pale walls and ceiling.”

This a great deal to express in a visual medium.

Another strength of the novel, and a challenge to the filmmakers, is the extent to which the reader is submerged in Faraday’s narration. Class snobbery, though well past its sell by date in practical terms, is alive and kicking in hearts and minds in this part of Warwickshire. Dr. Faraday is rather too keen to be on the right side of the fence.

He bristles at Hundreds Hall guests who presume he must have come on business rather than a social call, and is fervently loyal in a codependent way to the Ayreses who have retained notions of grandeur even as their house crumbles around them.

Like The Haunting, The Little Stranger, hugs as close to the source novel as possible. It was directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Room, 2015) with a screenplay by Lucina Coxon (The Crimson Petal and the White, 2011).

The main deviations, not surprisingly, involve accentuating the conflict and gathering the dramatic events into a narrower corridor. When, as a child, Faraday commits his act of vandalism on Hundred’s Hall during an Empire Day celebration, he is confronted by Susan Ayres, then six years old.

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Childhood confrontation — “village boy” and aristocrat

 

Susan, we are told, the Ayreses’ first-born, would become ill and die very soon afterwards.

This convergence of events will inform the viewer’s deductions — in two opposite directions — later on when supernatural acts of vandalism occur.

The film also adds a percussive accent to events from the novel — the child Faraday pulling an acorn from Hundreds Hall molding; receiving a vicious slap from his mother (in the novel, she merely weeps); Dr. Faraday screeching to  halt to avoid running over Gyp, Caroline Ayres’s dog; a little girl suddenly mauled (apparently) by Gyp behind the curtains at a social gathering. The added emphases echo and intensify as the plot unfolds.

In Domhnall Gleeson’s portrayal of Faraday, the film meets one central challenge head on. Gleeson, an almost constant on screen presence, is like a wire pulled very tight. Though his face moves very little, the viewer follows each nuance, seeing all too clearly the prickly depths of his needs and ambitions.

Being trapped inside a character who is so edgily conservative and driven is extremely uncomfortable. Faraday is completely sure of his own judgement as he seeks to convince Hundreds Hall heir Caroline Ayres (Ruth Wilson) they should wed.

He seems unconscious of the growing divide between them as he extracts promises from her. For the viewer it is like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

The Little Stranger (2009) is one of those rare novels that seems close to perfect. Everything works from the very first clear image to the last. Partly for this reason the novel seems to resist adaptation. The final image, for instance, couldn’t work in the medium of film as it does in the novel.

But Abrahamson and Coxon have succeeded in finding another way.  Consequently, it’s difficult to see how an adaptation could have worked better.

Tip: read the book and see the film. They are both great.

 

 

 

 

Little Strangers and Haunted Mansions

Author L.P. Hartley once claimed that the ghost story was the hardest literary discipline because there is “no intermediate step between success and failure. Either it comes off or it is a flop.”

This makes life especially difficult for the 21st century writer. It’s so easy these days to see viscerally horrifying images whether in film, video games, or the internet. Surely an art honed to explore more intangible terrors — a thinning of the dividing line between the living and the dead, for instance — has little chance of making an impact on our jaded senses.

It’s curious then to re-read two favourite novels and find that supernatural fiction — subtle, character-driven, and thoughtful — has lost none of its power to invade the unconscious mind and awaken existential terror.

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Privilege and Class Envy, Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger

Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, published in 2009, opens with a memory: A general practitioner, Dr. Faraday, recalls a boyhood Empire Day fête on the grounds of ‘Hundreds Hall’, the grand home of his mother’s former employers, the Ayreses. It is the summer after the Great War. As his mother was once in service for the family, the boy is allowed the rare privilege of sneaking briefly beyond the servants’ quarters into the main part of the house.

Astounded by the beauty of the place, he surreptitiously takes out his penknife, cuts a plaster acorn from its molding, and hides it in his pocket, a “crime” which becomes a guilty secret for a clever, well-behaved future physician. As he looks back, he realizes it was as if “the admiration itself, which I suspected a more ordinary child would not have felt, entitled me to it.”

The episode awakens the novel’s theme. The Little Stranger is set amidst the societal upheavals of late 1940s Britain, the growth in social housing, universal health care etc., and the decline of the landed gentry. The fortunes of the Ayreses have long since slumped and Hundreds Hall has similarly fallen into disrepair. Meanwhile, the former village boy has risen far enough in status to tend the family servants and even to socialize with the new generation of Ayreses.

Times are changing. Siblings Caroline and Roderick Ayres complain that their ailing maid, Betty, is in many ways better off than them. Dr. Faraday sees the self-delusion in such sentiments, yet he’s also drawn to the the Ayreses. He finds himself regretting how Caroline’s hands have become grimy from peeling her own vegetables. Like many of Waters’s characters, Dr. Faraday is at once complex, convincing, and full of internal contradictions. He resents the young aristocrats for the liberties they take yet yearns for the time when they might have lived in the splendor their parents would have expected for them.

Betty, the maid, isn’t exactly sick. She is frightened of a house full of winding servants’ staircases and obsolete gadgets like the the call bells and wires, that “imperious little machine designed to summon a staff of servants to the grander realm above.” The silence in the house is “so pure, it [feels] pressurized.”

As various mishaps occur — unexplained burn marks on the walls, a child attacked at a social gathering, apparently, by Caroline’s dog Gyp — Dr. Faraday gets closer and closer to the Ayreses, even beginning an unlikely courtship with Caroline. Caroline becomes Hundreds Hall’s most likely heir as her brother’s mental health is threatened.

But is Dr. Faraday really in love with Caroline? Or is he more enamored with the idea of possessing the house? An unwholesome, subtly corrupt atmosphere leaks through the seams of ordinary life as Dr. Faraday struggles with the legacy of class divisions and his own covetousness.

The Little Stranger walks a remarkable line uniting two elements which ought to be mutually exclusive: it creates a sense of logic, a cause and effect, between living characters and supernatural events. Yet those same occurrences remain the province of an unfathomable mystery.

Fifty years before The Little Stranger, Shirley Jackson published The Haunting of Hill House, another seminal work of the supernatural.

Like The Little Stranger, The Haunting of Hill House is peopled by characters as three dimensional as any in fiction, and it features a house which becomes a living part of the plot.

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Disorienting Angles, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House

Eleanor Vance, sole carer of her long-ailing mother, finds that when her charge dies she has no career, no friends, and at thirty-four years of age lives as a permanent but unwelcome guest in her sister’s home.

A series of poltergeist-like events in her youth means Eleanor has been picked as one of the subjects of a summer-long experiment run by Dr. John Montague, an academic studying the supernatural. Dr. Montague wants to observe what happens when susceptible people — possible mediums — spend a couple of months in a notoriously haunted home, the Hill House of the title.

Seeing the project as an escape and an overdue adventure, Eleanor arrives with a heightened sense of excitement. Meeting the bohemian Theodora, a fellow subject, Eleanor invents a life for herself in which she, like Theodora, has her own apartment.

The house, Dr. Montague explains, was designed by its original owner, Hugh Crain, eighty years before and deliberately built with disorienting tilts and angles so that guests become easily lost.

The family history of the Crains is unhappy. Two daughters were left in the house as the widowed Crain took a new wife abroad where he died. One sister inherited and fell out with her sibling who was then accused of breaking in at night and stealing objects.

As Dr. Montague’s subjects settle into Hill House, disturbances begin to occur at night. Something makes a deafening clang along the upstairs landing. Voices murmur through the walls and there is a child’s mocking laughter. Cryptic messages, aimed apparently at Eleanor, appear in huge chalk letters over the walls, and Theodora’s clothes are vandalized and smeared in blood. A nighttime walk for Eleanor and Theodora suddenly turns into blinding daylight and they scramble back to the house, traumatized.

Later in the novel, Luke, one of the company, and the heir to Hill House, reads from a book created by Crain for the eldest of his daughters. Though religious in tone, the language Crain uses reveals a narcissism bordering on blasphemy; he looks forward to when his daughter can be reunited with her father in heaven. But the “father” he refers to is himself. This, the book’s lurid, sexual illustrations which purport to be moral lessons, and an immodest statue self-portrait suggest Hugh Crain was, and might still be, a deeply baleful presence in the house.

Eleanor is the subject most affected by Hill House. She becomes curiously awake to every  movement, even those in distant rooms. “Far away, upstairs, perhaps in the nursery, a little eddy of wind gathered itself and swept along the floor, carrying dust. In the library the iron stairway swayed, and light glittered on the marble eyes of Hugh Crain.”

Theodora, and the others, suspect some of the disturbances revolve around Eleanor’s psychokinetic powers. Eleanor herself senses the house wishes to consume her and make her its own.

These novels, to echo the words of L.P. Hartley, both “come off” admirably in the supernatural sense, but they also satisfy every other literary criteria. Both The Little Stranger and The Haunting of Hill House achieve high levels of supernatural frisson without allowing the ghostly elements to dominate the characters’ individual psychology. In both cases the protagonists are uncomfortably real, and the hauntings in some way relate to their yearnings or their fears.

Neither Waters nor Jackson try to solve the riddle of the universe. They don’t give their hauntings an explanation, just a series of provocative hints and implications. This, in the end, is part of what makes the novels so memorable.

Nothing is more compelling than a question left unanswered.

Paul Butler is the author of the novel, The Widow’s Fire.