Jacqueline Baker’s The Broken Hours is Esi Edugyan’s choice for the latest Globe and Mail Book Club for subscribers. Every week, Globe Books will look at themes drawn from the novel to spark discussion among readers. This week, Elizabeth Renzetti looks at the nature of haunted houses and the darkness that resides within the hearts of those inhabiting them. What do you think is the most frightening haunted house in fiction or film? Let us know in the comments below. And to get tickets for our subscriber-exclusive Book Club event on Nov. 28 in Vancouver, register here.
Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House starts with a bang, a paragraph so sublimely terrifying that it lodges like a tick under the skin: “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. …” The house’s veneer of respectability contains something that defies rational thought and causes the blood to freeze. “Whatever walked there,” Jackson writes, “walked alone.”
Of course it walked alone. It is in the nature of haunted houses to separate us not just from the comfort of our human companions, but from our faculties and reason. That cannot possibly be an icy dead hand, the traveller Lockwood thinks at the beginning of Wuthering Heights, as Cathy’s petulant ghost reaches through the broken window. My husband cannot possibly be chasing me with an axe, Wendy Torrance’s sensible mind protests as the haunted Overlook hotel takes possession of Jack in Stephen King’s The Shining. He’s a writer, for God’s sake!
Like Jackson and King, Jacqueline Baker is a master at describing horror in domestic detail. At the beginning of her novel The Broken Hours, the wonderfully named Arthor Crandle, rain-soaked and empty-pocketed, arrives at 66 College St. in Providence, R.I. He agreed to do some housekeeping – or, as the narrator revealingly mishears, “hisskeeping” – for the reclusive novelist H.P. Lovecraft.
And what a house he’s supposed to keep. “There was something unwelcoming about it,” Crandle observes, “… a kind of squat and sublimated misanthropy.” One of the neighbours reveals his wife wouldn’t live in the house because it made her so uncomfortable. Our narrator finds a bit of gravestone underneath his pillow. He feels himself “eaten up by darkness” as he climbs the stairs to his grim little room. You get the sense that Arthor’s grasp of the handles of sanity, perhaps never firm to begin with, has begun to slip.
But it gets worse: worse in a way that involves a jar full of baby’s teeth and a whole bunch of staggering family secrets and a thing in the basement. Don’t ask me what’s in the basement. I just know it was bad. If Lovecraft were writing the story, he might have described Sixty-Six possessing “an eldritch atmosphere.” (The cellar-terror might be Baker’s nod to Lovecraft’s story The Shunned House, which features the kind of monster mushroom you don’t want to find in the downstairs pantry.)
Gifted ghost-story writers realize where true horror lies. What is haunted is not the walls of the house or the hotel or the sanitarium, but the living things inside them. Walls can be escaped, even if they have bloody handprints on them. The thing we can’t escape is ourselves; we bring the haunting inside, because it’s inside us.
John Milton’s Satan knew this in Paradise Lost when he lamented, “Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell.” As Crandle comes to question his place in Lovecraft’s house, and his own crumbling reason, he says: “Oh yes, the darkness drew me. Had drawn me always. There was something in me, I knew, something perhaps in us all which, no matter our rational selves, was haunted.”
Could there be anything more terrifying than the idea that we’re all dragging around our own haunted houses, like cursed turtles? Sometimes the unresolved pain becomes untenable, as it does for Crandle and Lovecraft, and something snaps. For most of us, though, the haunting is more mundane. I like to think of haunting the way that Hilary Mantel does, in her magnificent memoir Giving up the Ghost: She believes that ghosts can be real – her stepfather lingered in her cottage long after his death – but more important, they exist in everyone’s lives in the form of choices not made and roads not taken, children unborn and books unwritten. She writes, “All your houses are haunted by the person you might have been.”
This seems to me the key to The Broken Hours’ mystery. There is a curve that Baker throws toward the end of the novel that is both unexpected (I certainly didn’t see it coming) and wholly satisfying. I can’t say too much without giving it away, obviously, and nobody likes a spoiler boor. Let’s just say that the resolution, ambiguous as it is, ends up casting light on some of the weirder dim corners of 66 College St. The creepy thing that hides in the dark isn’t actually unfamiliar, and that’s what makes it heartbreaking – and terrifying.
Please subscribe to the Books newsletter to keep up-to-date on the latest subscriber-exclusive Book Club installments. And to attend the Vancouver event on Nov. 28 where Book Club host Esi Edugyan and Jacqueline Baker will discuss The Broken Hours, register here. The event, being held in partnership with the Vancouver Writers Fest, is complimentary and open exclusively to subscribers.