Sunday, March 15, 2015

when those demons you're looking to purge just might be your own: Nazareth Hill, by Ramsey Campbell.

Tor, 1998
383 pp


No, S.T. Joshi, this book does not "rival" Shirley Jackson's Haunting of Hill House, but it is certainly a good one. It's an incredibly well-balanced novel where the supernatural provides a backdrop for an intense psychological examination of a man as he sinks into his own madness.

Outside the market square, beyond the park gates on a hill in the village of Partington, there lies an old ruined house on Nazareth Row.  It is known to the locals as Nazarill,  but to eight year-old Amy Priestley, it is "the spider house."  Maybe it has something to do with the idea that "its ominous stillness reminded her of a spider crouching in its web," but more likely because
"...since she'd glimpsed her father's fear of spiders despite his efforts to conceal it from her, it somehow stood for fears of her own that she would rather not define."
At the time, though, she "hadn't the words to express that idea." Regardless, dad Oswald decided to teach her a lesson about conquering her fear, and makes her look into the window, so that he can prove to her that there's nothing there. Later we find out that at the time, he's actually more worried that Amy might be showing symptoms of her maternal grandmother's mental illness, so he tries to make her realize that there is absolutely nothing to fear from the house. Unbeknownst to Oswald, he's just made a huge mistake -- Amy does see something there, but so as not to make her parents upset, she hides the panic it causes and never says a word. After a time, she forgets, but it all comes back  seven years later when Amy and her father take up residence in their  newly-rebuilt Nazarill upscale condo. All seems to be going well until strange things start happening at Nazarill -- including a death -- and Amy becomes convinced that there's something more there than meets the eye.  Looking for any kind of answers, she starts researching Nazarill's history.  The more she digs, the more she finds, but in trying to persuade Oswald into believing her that there is weird stuff happening here, she only manages to convince him that there's something terribly wrong with her -- and that perhaps her grandmother's mental illness has caught up with her. Things take a very wrong turn when Oswald refuses to listen to her and she decides to call in and tell the truth on a radio talk show, which only makes things worse and alienates her from the conservative locals. Their complaints to Oswald, her resistance to her father's growing tyranny,  and Oswald's own increasing paranoia lead him to take some pretty drastic and horrific measures to rid her of the demons he thinks are plaguing her.

I must say, I read Campbell's Ancient Images not all that long ago, and Nazareth Hill makes that one seem like the work of an amateur.  This is a great book -- it is a drama based in the real world that finds itself played out on the stage of the supernatural.  It is a look at a man's descent into utter madness and how it affects others around him. The big question, I think, is whether or not what ultimately happens in this book has its roots in Nazarill itself, or would Oswald's decline have eventually happened no matter where he and Amy lived?   It seems that whatever is inside Nazarill has the ability to isolate, understand, and then magnify the fears of its inhabitants. After all, it's not just Amy and Oswald who have issues -- other people in the Nazarill  building have seen and experienced strange things (one even manifesting itself in a group photograph).  But sadly for Amy, Oswald has a number of issues he's internalized (including his arachnophobia) so if you opt for Nazarill,  he's a particularly susceptible candidate for the house's influence.  What's really and truly frightening to me, though, is how calm and caring he appears to those on  the outside, seen to all as a father who wants to help his little girl. The problem is that  no one really understands how far into his own delusional paranoia he's fallen, and even worse -- because of things Amy's done to rock the boat in this little conservative community, no one will listen to her when she begs for help.

I don't understand the negative reviews of this novel -- some people didn't find it scary enough, some thought it was too long and too clunky in terms of how Campbell writes here. I mean, each to his own, but I found it exceptionally frightening on a human level. And while I'm a huge fan of the author's short stories, he manages to keep the tension flowing and building throughout the entire length of this book. A lot of authors I've read can't make that transition and do it well, but in this case, I was hopelessly lost in this story until the ending.  Actually, the ending was kind of what I found not so great about this novel, but for me it's usually about the journey anyway. I have zero qualms recommending this book.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

And I digress: following the path of the haunted house -- post number one

from "The Haunting" -- Hill House

A few weeks ago,  I read Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and was just blown away with just how great of a book it is. It's definitely not your average haunted house story, for example, as in the case of John Boyne's This House is Haunted, where there is an actual spirit in the house who haunts the governesses of her children, or in  Haunted by James Herbert where there are definitely ghosts who cause trouble for a paranormal investigator. While there's absolutely  nothing wrong with the appearance of ghosts and other creepy entities in haunted house novel (and let's face it -- they're fun when you want a bit of light reading and want that nice shiver of fright running down your spine), The Haunting of Hill House gave me an entirely new perspective on things.  When it was over and I thought about it, I realized that unlike the straight-up haunted house novels mentioned above,  The Haunting of Hill House works at a much deeper level, focusing mainly on the character of Eleanor Vance.  At some point I remember asking myself whether it could possibly be Eleanor herself  unconsciously projecting her own neurosis (and she has many psychological issues that revealed themselves as I went through the book)  and actually creating the "hauntings" that occurred there. On the other hand, it could be the house itself  that is evil in its own right, something malevolent that wants something from the people within. Actually, now that I'm rehashing it in my head, maybe it's a combination of both.

Borley Rectory, England
As much as I would love to talk about the psychological implications of Jackson's novel, since to me they're at the very core of this story,  this post isn't a "review" of the novel at all. Reading Jackson's book has kind of put me onto this haunted house kick, so until I get really sick and tired of the topic, I'm thinking I'd like to do kind of a survey of haunted house fiction to explore how different authors use these spooky dwellings in their work. Nothing too literary, mind you -- just reading for my own entertainment and personal enlightenment.  Right now I'm sort of flying by the seat of my pants re my book choices, sticking to what I have on hand, but I think I'll spend some time researching the history of haunted house literature and sort of arrange my findings/reading in some kind of chronological order if possible. [As an interesting sidebar, I read somewhere once that one of the Plinies even wrote an account of someone staying in a house that was supposedly haunted, but I'll have to double check that].

So far since Jackson, I've read Nazareth Hill, by Ramsey Campbell (another excellent novel but not quite in the same range of excellence as Haunting of Hill House, imo, but close), which I will discuss sometime soon down the road, and another I'll post about shortly, Kim Newman's An English Ghost Story.  Currently I'm reading The Feast of Bacchus by Ernest G. Henham written in 1907 and republished by Valancourt Books.

 Any help with titles would be welcomed, the more obscure, the better.