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Constraints on Innovation in Fiction: Reflections on The Lady's Maid's Bell and The Haunting of Hill House May 2, 2021

Last year I read Edith Wharton's "The Lady's Maid's Bell" (1904), and I started but didn't finish a blog post about the difficulty modern readers seem to have interpreting stories written in a time with a different cultural norms. Last weekend I read The Haunting of Hill House (1959) by Shirley Jackson, which reminded me of the same conundrum.

Both titles are ghost stories written by women, in time periods when women had to figure out how to communicate certain ideas without saying them outright. Nestled in the charm of the spooky gothic narratives are horrors much worse than a poltergeist going bump in the night. And when twenty-first century audiences read either one, they focus on entirely the wrong thing: the mystery of "what happened."

When I read "The Lady's Maid's Bell" and looked online for interpretations, I found blog posts of people asking "Did Mr. Brympton murder Emma?" or saying, "I have a theory Mrs. Brympton died from a failed abortion after her affair with Ranford."

Similarly when I finished The Haunting of Hill House, still starry-eyed from its brilliance, I Googled for things I might have missed. All I found were reviews complaining the characters are unlikeable and nothing really scary happens, and Reddit posts asking, "Do you think Hill House was haunted, or did Eleanor have telekinesis?"

For these particular stories, the question of "what happened" is largely irrelevant. It doesn't matter how Emma died or whether Mrs. Brympton was sleeping with her gallant friend Ranford, because "The Lady's Maid's Bell" is a story about the horror of domestic abuse. It's the narrative of a wealthy man who bullies his servants, verbally and sexually assaults his frail wife, and gets away with it because while everyone knows what he's doing, they're powerless to do more than whisper about it in private.

Wharton never states directly that this is a story about abuse—she sneaks it in through the story itself. She introduces the central conflict when Alice learns about the job at the Brympton's from Mrs. Railton, long before we meet any ghosts. "The gentleman's almost always away, I tell you!" Mrs. Railton insists. "And when he's there...you've only to keep out of his way." When Alice meets Brympton for the first time, she expresses relief that she's "not the kind of morsel he's after." The morning after Alice finds him coming out of his wife's bedroom, she worries "the poor lady was weary of her life, and had come to the mad resolve of ending it." The narrative ends at Mrs. Brympton's funeral, when her husband jumps into the carriage "nearest the [graveyard] gate" and returns to his life of leisure.

Scholars write essays about the "irresolution" of "The Lady's Maid's Bell," but the real story is fully resolved. The ghost of Emma failed to protect her beloved mistress, the villain gets away with the horrible things he's done and will continue to get away with horrible things for the rest of his charmed life, the end. The story only seems to have an ambiguous ending if you get distracted by the sensational elements that are unimportant, like the precise causes of Emma's and Mrs. Brampton's deaths.

The Haunting of Hill House is also not really the story of a mysterious haunted house. It's a story about the destructive power of a judgemental heteronormative society.

Eleanor is a woman who is uncommonly intelligent, supernaturally gifted, and somewhat disturbed, but she's learned to express herself amiably and unthreateningly no matter what she's thinking for acceptance "in the fold." She's spent her adult life in selfless domestic drudgery, caring for her dying narcissistic mother. She is very likely a lesbian with internalized homophobia, living in a world in which Jackson must rigorously refer to Theodora's partner as a "friend" without any pronouns.

The central crisis of the novel is Eleanor realizing she has "never been wanted anywhere" and developing a pathological attachment to the makeshift family in Hill House. "I am home, I am home" she thinks deliriously during her final psychological break, climbing the crumbling stairs of the tower where her spiritual predecessor—the ostracized "companion" of the woman who owned the house—hanged herself years before. When the others try to send Eleanor away from Hill House for her own mental health, she drives into a tree because she'd rather die than live without a "home."

When people ask whether the house was really haunted or Eleanor caused the disturbances with her psychic abilities, there is no clear answer. That's like asking, "Did society shape your life, or did you?" Hill House is the enforcer of conformity. Every door belongs sensibly shut, every plate belongs on its shelf, women belong in the kitchen and men belong in the roles of leader and protector. When Eleanor takes a walk with Theodora and considers asking, "Do you love me?" either the house or her own mind conjures up a colorful illusion of a "normal" nuclear family on a picnic that frightens them both back to the safety of the house. No one is allowed to break the rules, and no one is allowed to escape. You can either surrender and become one with the house, embracing and perpetuating its rules, or you can try to leave and die alone.

Contemporary ghost stories since the 1990s—from popular shows like The Ghost Whisperer to hit movies like The Ring—all follow a certain template. The ghost dies a horrible death. It lurks in the mortal plane with a specific goal, and it moves on when it achieves that goal with the help of a living hero who solves the mystery of what happened.

So readers today try to fit both "The Lady's Maid's Bell" and The Haunting of Hill House into the model they've learned. They try to make sense of Mrs. Brympton's death by squinting between the lines in search of sordid secrets, and try to understand the spooky phenomena of Hill House in terms of who or what caused it, not what it represents. People concoct far-fetched "theories" to tie up every perceived loose thread in what are actually straightforward stories.

Because expectations for horror have been so thoroughly solidified by Stephen King and slasher flicks, the unfortunate truth is neither of these classic and innovative stories could be published today.

The definition of "good writing" in publishing has become as rigid as the state rubrics for grading essays in standardized K-12 tests: thesis, supporting statement, supporting statement, repeat. In today's ideal novel, the first paragraph introduces the story question. The first page launches the plot with pulse-pounding action that captures the readers' attention. Every page after that is intoxicating, addicting, holding the readers enraptured with surprising twists and turns until The End.

Publishing professionals tweet that they can evaluate a writing sample in less than a minute. Agents blog that if the first page lacks an active voice, or if they don't feel a "visceral" reaction to the scene, or if the writing has too much "pedestrian" detail, they won't read on. In other words, books that follow an instantly recognizable pattern are worth publishing, and those that don't are "not good enough."

This is the case for every genre. The Vivian Contest scoring rubric infamously defines good romances as books with openings that "immediately grab and hold the attention of the reader," conflicts that are "realistic, fresh, and not easily resolved," settings that are "grounded in sensory details that enhance the impact of the story," and so on.

I once tried to get into science fiction, but all of the titles I tried from lists of "the best" SF novels have had the same tone: cynical, macho, and violent. Last spring I tried again by watching an anthology TV series. The episodes varied greatly in tone and style. Some episodes I neither liked nor disliked. Some I hated because they were as joyless as those books.

But one episode I enjoyed so much, for that one hour, I loved science fiction. The tone was fun and wholesome. The story featured relatable characters, a zippy plot, and a sprinkling of romance. I told my husband, "If this is what science fiction can be, I want to write it!"

After I finished the available episodes, I Googled the show's title to see if future seasons were in the works. In one of the top results, a group of science-fiction experts evaluated the show.

The wholesome episode that momentarily inspired me to join the world of SF? "Goofy." The weakest entry by far. Underdeveloped, with no grounding in reality.

The episode I hated most, because it was so nihilistic and cruel, it made me feel physically ill? Inarguably the strongest episode in the series, the experts said. They gushed over its "brutality." One quoted author said, "You could actually make this the formula for any good science fiction story."

Formula. We think of genre formula in terms of common tropes and narrative arcs, but it extends farther than that. To me, formula is the complete set of beliefs about what a story is "supposed to be" that readers have absorbed from all the media they've encountered in their lifetimes. It's not just how the plot is supposed to go, but also how the characters are supposed to think and act, how the story is supposed to be told, and what the audience is supposed to feel.

Formula is the reason many Goodreads reviewers complain The Haunting of Hill House is boring. They expect a horror novel to keep them awake all night with visions of vengeful apparitions and deranged axe-wielding murderers. When that doesn't happen, they get angry at the author for "wasting their time." They say the Netflix show is better because it has proper ghosts, and they assert Jackson didn't really write horror, but "terror" instead.

Formula is the reason people complain without embarrassment that Night by Elie Wiesel isn't shocking enough for a Holocaust book and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe isn't exotic enough for an African book. On the very first page of Goodreads reviews for Things Fall Apart, a self-described critic declares, "The power of a story from a different culture is in defamiliarization...I have read modern stories by fellow American authors which were stranger and produced more culture shock, more defamiliarization than this."

Formula is the reason men avoid books with pictures of women on the covers, and I will continue to avoid any book with a picture of a planet from space on the cover. They don't want "sentimental tosh," and I don't want self-important "brutality," thanks.

The inescapable fact is the business of books depends on formula. Literary agents and editors can't read a hundred books a day from start to finish before evaluating their merits. They must make a snap judgement based on the first page. Readers, too, have limited time and face infinite options for entertainment. They have a couple of seconds to glance at a page of ten titles and covers and decide if any "look good," or if they'll scroll on. The only people who can get away with innovation are the authors with established brands and fans, because their names alone carry the promise of quality.

Genre formulas can be useful in crafting books, too. Writing is the art of manipulating a reader's mind, so we need to consider what was in there first. A formulaic novel isn't necessarily a bad novel, and a wholly original one that disregards literary traditions isn't necessarily ingenious.

But like Eleanor in Hill House, if writers surrender completely to formula, we lose ourselves. I recently saw a tweet along the lines of, "Just turned in my latest MS to my agent. She said it's 'incredibly marketable' and exactly what publishers are looking for!" followed by a smiling emoji surrounded by floating hearts. Dozens responded with congratulatory messages, as if marketable is the highest praise an artist could dream of seeing about their work.

I hope more writers will reach beyond "marketable" and take risks to create works that endure, like "The Lady's Maid's Bell" and The Haunting of Hill House. Not everyone likes stories that take risks, but even fewer people like stories that take none.

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