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Three Hauntingly Unforgettable Literary Houses

by Laura Miller
Oct 26, 2009 (All Things Considered)

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Houses can be bought and sold, but if nothing else, the current housing crisis teaches us the danger of treating a house as a mere commodity. Literature is full of reminders that houses have souls, a fact characters forget at their own peril. In some novels, the house is as much a force as any of the people in the story. When that happens, the human characters had better beware.

'Rebecca'

Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, paperback, 416 pages

Some houses are haunted by dead people, but in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, the people are haunted by the house. It's called Manderley, a bewitchingly beautiful estate on the coast of Cornwall. Everyone in the novel is obsessed with Manderley. The first thing we learn about the novel's narrator is that she dreams about the place. What we never find out is her name; let's call her the second Mrs. de Winter, a shy and gawky bride recently married to Manderley's owner, a widower twice her age. She's convinced that her husband is still in love with his glamorous first wife, Rebecca, and it sure doesn't help that the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers — one of literature's great villains — keeps telling her how much better Rebecca was at being the mistress of Manderley. But Rebecca was not what she seemed, and Manderley's many secrets will not stay buried forever.

'The Haunting of Hill House'

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson, paperback, 208 pages

If Manderley is seductive, the supremely creepy New England mansion in Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, is downright evil. What makes a house go bad? According to Jackson, some of them are just built that way. At Hill House, every apparently right angle is slightly off, certain doors won't stay closed — or open — and nothing is quite where you thought it would be.

The house is literally deranged, which may explain why so many of its former residents have killed themselves. Into this malevolent environment come four would-be ghost hunters, determined to capture evidence of the paranormal. Hill House, however, has other ideas, and like any natural predator, it sets its sights on the weakest member of the herd.

'House of Leaves'

House of Leaves, Mark Danielewski, paperback, 709 pages

The house in Mark Danielewski's experimental novel, House of Leaves, is just as formidable as Hill House, even if it doesn't have a name. It's an ordinary suburban home in Virginia, until the day the residents come back from a vacation to find a closet where before there was only a blank wall. Careful measurements reveal the impossible: The house appears to be growing, becoming bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. A hallway opens out of the living room wall, leading to a seemingly infinite maze of dark rooms and passageways. Danielewski's novel is the latest literary twist on the house as a symbol of the human psyche, convoluted and absorbing. But the message remains the same: However fascinating we may find the insides of our heads, sometimes we're best off following mom's advice and heading outside for a little fresh air.

Three Books ... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Bridget Bentz.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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