What better way to celebrate spooky season than a series of blog posts on Gothic tropes? As it happens, I’m hoping to get The Crows back from my editor by December in time for a January release, and every chapter heading is a different Gothic trope.
Chapter One is The Creepy Old House, and introduces the main character of the novel (and the main human protagonist, too…)
The Creepy Old House & Me
Although not an essential ingredient to a Gothic story, the Creepy Old House is my absolute favourite because there’s so much you can do with it. Old houses, creepy or otherwise, were a staple of my childhood.
As a child, I was enamoured with the old houses we had locally – one in particular, a huge, proud, grey Georgian hulk of a thing my grandparents knew as “the old doctor’s house”, was deliberately left to rot because it was a listed building that no one could knock down until it fell down, and is now a whole new (small) housing development.
Disneyland Paris’s Haunted Mansion attraction was (predictably) my favourite, and the best bit for me as a kid was the beginning, going into the room with the portraits that look like they are sweet and depicting pretty picnics and romantic moments in the lives of the sitters, only to see that there are Momenti Mori and sinister things in each one hinting at tragedy and impending doom.
At Christmas time, we went to the (then Council-owned) local manor house for tours, mulled wine, historical dances and ghost stories of the Morgans, their piratical relations (yes, that Captain Henry Morgan) and their unhappy marriages. Tragedy, deteriorating mental health, exotic menageries and black magic in the cellar were the main selling points of the tours, and now, of course, Tredegar House has been taken over by the National Trust and is best known for its Doctor Who appearances.
Primary School trips during the “try and teach them about the Tudors and Stuarts” phase were to another, confirmed 100% haunted manor where we had our wedding reception, Llancaiach Fawr. I fell hopelessly in love with this Manor House aged 8, the smell of it, the warmth in the rooms, the volunteers dressed in period costume guiding you in character and making you laugh. I have never to this day seen a ghost there, nor did any orbs photobomb our wedding photos, but if I were a ghost it’s where I would hang out forever.
Although I set my fictional town and Creepy Old House in East Sussex not South East Wales, part of the old doctor’s house lives on in The Crows: the decayed grandeur, at least, and the sad nobility with which it observed its own gradual ruination. It also has a fair bit of Llancaiach Fawr’s brooding nature and Tredegar House’s sensational family history, but, apart from that, it has a personality all of its own.
I imagined it as a bit smaller than Bateman’s, the East Sussex home of Rudyard Kipling: certainly that sort of stonework, and the setting.
Thomas Brown’s rendering of it is pretty close! Look for this illustration (and 4 others) in the paperback and ebook versions of the novel.
Fairwood House, a.k.a. The Crows, by Thomas Brown
About The Trope
So, what is the “creepy house/sentient house” trope?
Basically, it’s a setting that does what it says on the tin: it’s a creepy old – usually Victorian or older – house or vicarage or manor or … you get the idea. A place of significance to the novel, this is more than just a setting, it’s a reflection of the story’s themes, a place in which the protagonist will find themselves and face their fears, and may be described as if it’s alive. They have an atmosphere and a personality all of their own, and depending on the effect the storyteller wants to create, they can range from Creepy But It’s Home (like some of my favourites, including the Addams Family mansion, Bide-A-Wee Rest Home in that gloriously Gothic pastiche, Carry on Screaming, or the mansion in Caspar the Friendly Ghost) to Monster House (it’s literally going to eat you) and everything in between.
There could be haunted, or simply dreary, lonely settings that add to the isolation of the protagonist and contribute to their trials and tribulations. Such settings appear in Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, Jane Eyre, and are amiably poked fun of in Northanger Abbey.
Some memorable/iconic Creepy Old Houses include the Addams Family abode, as much a part of the family as any of the actual characters, and, on the other end of the scale, Eel Marsh House, in which the child-taking Woman in Black lurks, waiting to be seen.
Houses are meant to be safe spaces. They are where we are at our most vulnerable, where we sleep, where we relax, where we shut and lock out the world. This makes the subversion of the home – where your home is the dangerous place – more frightening. Locking the door won’t help you: the terror is on the inside.
Houses can contain terror, or be embodiments of it, or both. When ‘memory palace’ associations are used – rooms reflecting the past, libraries containing fragments of history, items and spaces that remind the protagonist of events and people from their own lives – it becomes the ideal setting for psychological horror to play out, the catalyst for dark secrets to be revealed, a setting that physically reflects the dark corners of the protagonist’s and/or antagonist’s mind.
Stephen King played with this trope in Salem’s Lot:
“The town kept its secrets, and the Marsten House brooded over it like a ruined king.” Stephen King, Salem’s Lot
King made this more explicit in the TV miniseries he scripted, Rose Red, where a house (the eponymous Rose Red, in fact), essentially an homage to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and in part the Winchester House by another name, is the subject of a paranormal investigation.
Hill House itself, arguably as much a character in The Haunting of Hill House as any of the actual people, is possibly one of the best examples of this trope.
In the famous opening paragraph, we are introduced to this main character of the novel by a third person omniscient narrator, although the rest of the book (except for the close, which is again in omniscient 3rd and mirrors the beginning) is from the closed/limited perspective of Eleanor Vance.
“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.” Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
Read the next post: A TOWN WITH DARK SECRETS
Bonus Review: The Haunting of Hill House
On that note, as a bonus to this post, here’s my (brief, non-spoilery) review of The Haunting of Hill House, not very detailed, but hopefully if you haven’t picked it up yet it will whet your appetite!
Haunting and Rich
I loved this and I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to read it! Houses that may/may not be sentient are my favourite thing. I loved the ambiguity and the focus on fairytale-spinning Eleanor, a kind of lost Cinderella, dancing through the tale looking for somewhere to belong. Her childlike imagination and astute, shrewd observations about the house and the others adds a dreamlike quality to the narration.
The empty space in what we don’t know, what we aren’t told, what the characters don’t say to each other, is all just as important as what is shown/told/described. The gaps in the communication, hints and unspoken things, are all part of the ways Jackson builds up a picture of the relationships between these strangers and how they develop.
The atmosphere is richly built up and the climax is inevitable and suitably dark, tragic, but oddly satisfying as a conclusion : overall, with the themes and tone, it’s easy to see why this is such an influential book, and why Jackson’s work in general has had such an impact on the genre.