Don’t worry about saving these songs!
And if one of our instruments breaks,
it doesn’t matter.
We have fallen into the place
where everything is music.
The strumming and the flute notes
rise into the atmosphere,
and even if the whole world’s harp
should burn up, there will still be
hidden instruments playing.
So the candle flickers and goes out.
We have a piece of flint, and a spark.
This singing art is sea foam.
The graceful movements come from a pearl
somewhere on the ocean floor.
Poems reach up like spindrift and the edge
of driftwood along the beach, wanting!
They derive
from a slow and powerful root
that we can’t see.
Stop the words now.
Open the window in the centre of your chest,
and let the spirits fly in and out.

Selected Poems
Translation Coleman Barks with John Moyne

repress revolt

March 25, 2018

Man enjoys the great advantage of having a god endorse the code he writes; and since man exercises a sovereign authority over women it is especially fortunate that this authority has been vested in him by the Supreme Being . . . the fear of God will therefore repress any impulse towards revolt in the downtrodden female.

Simone de Beauvoir
The Second Sex

these are traps

March 20, 2018

If you must write, you must do it in the face of all opposition… Do not spend too much more time on culture & reading, these are traps. When everything conspires to make the thing impossible, when you are tired, worried, with no time, or money, it is then that things get done.

Samuel Beckett
Letter to Claude Raimbourg, 3 May 1954

Such a weight of words

March 20, 2018

Emanuel Kaja

I have mixed feelings about words myself. Moving among them, sorting them out, watching them appear on the page, from this I derive a considerable pleasure. But at the same time I have another strong feeling about words which amounts to nothing less than nausea. Such a weight of words confronts us day in, day out, words spoken in a context such as this, words written by me and by others, the bulk of it a stale, dead terminology. Given this nausea, it’s very easy to be overcome by it and step back into paralysis. I imagine most writers know something of this kind of paralysis. But if it is possible to confront this nausea, to follow it to its hilt, to move through it and out of it, then it is possible to say that something has occurred, that something has even been achieved.

Harold Pinter
Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics 1948-1998

feeling of being used

March 18, 2018


So she thoroughly taught him that one cannot take pleasure without giving pleasure, and that every gesture, every caress, every touch, every glance, every last bit of the body has its secret, which brings happiness to the person who knows how to wake it. She taught him that after a celebration of love the lovers should not part without admiring each other, without being conquered or having conquered, so that neither is bleak or glutted or has the bad feeling of being used or misused.

Hermann Hesse

a northern god

In 1936, the psychologist C G Jung published an essay entitled “Wotan”, in which he argued that the remarkable rise of National Socialism in Germany was due not to economic, political or social causes, but to the fact that the German psyche had been overwhelmed by the sudden awakening of the archetype of the ancient Norse god, Wotan…had slumbered for 1,000 years, put to rest by the rise of Christianity. Now, however, the northern god of frenzy and magic had returned, and would, Jung predicted, more than likely lead the German people into some cataclysmic event.

Gary Lachman
Pagan Resurrection

writing was the only way

March 14, 2018

in window

Before I wrote my first book in 1989, the sum total of my earnings as a writer, over four years of freelancing, was about three thousand bucks. So it did appear to be financial suicide when I quit my job at Salomon Brothers — where I’d been working for a couple of years, and where I’d just gotten a bonus of $225,000, which they promised they’d double the following year — to take a $40,000 book advance for a book that took a year and a half to write.

My father thought I was crazy. I was twenty-seven years old, and they were throwing all this money at me, and it was going to be an easy career. He said, “Do it another ten years, then you can be a writer.” But I looked around at the people on Wall Street who were ten years older than me, and I didn’t see anyone who could have left. You get trapped by the money. Something dies inside. It’s very hard to preserve the quality in a kid that makes him jump out of a high-paying job to go write a book.


There’s no simple explanation for why I write. It changes over time. There’s no hole inside me to fill or anything like that, but once I started doing it, I couldn’t imagine wanting to do anything else for a living. I noticed very quickly that writing was the only way for me to lose track of the time.


I used to get the total immersion feeling by writing at midnight. The day is not structured to write, and so I unplug the phones. I pull down the blinds. I put my headset on and play the same soundtrack of twenty songs over and over and I don’t hear them. It shuts everything else out. So I don’t hear myself as I’m writing and laughing and talking to myself. I’m not even aware I’m making noise. I’m having a physical reaction to a very engaging experience. It is not a detached process.

Michael Lewis
On Writing

goddesses were by me

March 11, 2018

wicca Priestess

As a child, I grew up surrounded, in my mind, by goddesses. I must have been about nine years old, when I first encountered them in the pages of The Jewish Encyclopaedia. This set of numerous volumes was one of the few reading resources open to me in a strict Orthodox household; the others I remember included biographies of mothers of ‘great Jewish thinkers’ (such thinkers of course were all men). But it was the notion of the existence of goddesses that inspired me, a lonely and ‘difficult ‘ motherless girl who found the God encountered in the pages of the bible and in the synagogue services both frightening and remote. Here in these books, under headings such as Egyptology, Idolatry, etc, I found Isis, Maat, Asherah, Ashtoreth; and, a few years later at school, there were their Greek and Roman sisters, Astarte, Aphrodite, Artemis.

For all my childhood years until I left school and home at the age of sixteen, these goddesses were by me; I was frightened of them, but they were close not distant, and their nearness was a female nearness, and my terrors were of their power, but mediated by their gender. They were like me, of me, but greater by far.

Asphodel P Long
A Brief Autobiography

Older feminine values

March 11, 2018

Tamara De Lempicka - Le Rythme, 1924

Myth is concerned with truth, but not in any historical sense but rather the inner truths about life; as Sallustius, the last great pagan theologian in the 4th century says: ‘These things never happened, but always are.’ * In the secular age in which we live, we lack that deeply held reverence for life or sense of the sacred, and so we see earth – plants, soils, waters, animals and even other people – as if without soul or spirit: as things to be exploited for our own benefit with results which, because all things are related, are beginning to catch up with us and horrify us. Three thousand years of the patriarchy with its Abrahamic concept of man’s separation from nature is mainly responsible for this, and this is why the revival of paganism lays such stress on the Goddess presence in deity. Older feminine values are pressing to come into their own again. The restoration of the dignity of woman in religion is long overdue and absolutely crucial…

* Sallustius, On the Gods and the World

Jo O’Cleirigh
Nemeton and the sacred play of the year
Wood & Water, Spring 1980

a house on a hill

Regrettably, the ivy of literary criticism attached to Hill House has tended to obscure its finer features. Biographers, scholars, and pop-culture commentators alike have proven dubious guides, telling tales riddled with factual error and taking interpretive leaps that a careful reader hesitates to follow. The first step, then, to pushing toward a clearer understanding and appreciation of the novel involves hacking through such accrued verbiage.

Judy Oppenheimer’s hefty biography, Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson, has surprisingly little to say about The Haunting of Hill House, and the scant analysis it does offer is marred by inaccuracy. Discussing Eleanor Vance’s climactic smashing of her car “into a wall” (actually, it was a tree), Oppenheimer asserts that the protagonist kills herself “triumphantly. For it is not a defeat, far from it — in the moment she makes her decision to merge with the [house’s] dark powers, Eleanor is more blazingly alive than she has ever been in her life”. Grossly misreading the novel’s ending, Oppenheimer ignores the dismay Eleanor expresses when facing fatality: “In the unending, crashing second before the car hurled into the tree she thought clearly, Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Why don’t they stop me?”. Oppenheimer concludes her chapter soon thereafter with the punning assertion that Jackson’s “triumph was as total, and as smashing, as Elinor’s [sic],” and the glaring typo here does nothing to inspire trust in the biographer’s attentive reading of the novel.

In Shirley Jackson’s American Gothic, scholar Darryl Hattenhauer devotes an entire chapter to Hill House, but his study proves no more reliable than Oppenheimer’s. Hattenhauer states that the line “Fear and guilt are sisters” is an admonition inscribed by Hill House’s founding father Hugh Crain in his daughter’s primer, whereas the line is a bit of third-person narration that appears in the chapter section subsequent to the main characters’ perusal of said primer (Jackson writes: “Fear and guilt are sisters; Theodora caught [up with Eleanor] on the lawn”). Discussing the scene in which Theodora’s bedroom is defiled, Hattenhauer observes that Eleanor “apparently smears menstrual blood on Theodora’s clothing and then blocks out any memory of doing so”. But that would have to have been one deluge of a period to produce “so much blood”, and Hattenhauer’s reading of the incident in natural and psychological terms fails to explain the complete disappearance (later in the novel) of the blood smears from both the bedroom wall and Theodora’s clothing. Most problematically, when describing the author’s notes for her novel, Hattenhauer observes: “Jackson (apparently unconsciously) inscribes herself into the house. Her several sketches of the two-storey house exhibit traces of her body”. Unfortunately, Hattenhauer fails to produce any sketches to corroborate this off-the-wall theory.

Another take on Hill House can be found in Dale Bailey’s American Nightmares: The Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction. In this treatment, the author (a horror writer as well as an academic) seems preoccupied with legitimizing the haunted-house subgenre as a subject worthy of scholarly scrutiny. In his constant search for deeper meaning, Bailey refuses to consider the novels’ domestic horrors on their own terms: “In the hands of the best paperback novelists,” he writes, “the haunted house becomes a strikingly versatile metaphor; transcending the glossy clichés of formula, it drags into light the nightmarish tensions of gender, class, and culture hidden at the heart of American life”. Accordingly, Bailey argues that Jackson employs Hill House “as a metaphor for an oppressive patriarchal society”. He reads the novel in light of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” an 1892 weird tale in which medically-prescribed home confinement exacerbates rather than cures the female narrator’s mental and emotional woes. Jackson no doubt alludes to Gilman’s story (although Bailey fails to forge any specific intertextual links). Dr. John Montague’s plan to “rent Hill House for three months” starting in late June recalls the doctor named ‘John’ in “The Yellow Wallpaper” who likewise makes a summer rental of a Gothic manse. Montague’s wife comments as she obsesses over the titular wallpaper: It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide — plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions” Eleanor’s reaction to her blue-wallpapered bedroom at Hill House echoes this; scanning the perimeter of the room, Eleanor ponders:

“It had an unbelievably faulty design which left it chillingly wrong in all its dimensions, so that the walls seemed always in one direction a fraction longer than the eye could endure, and in another direction a fraction less than the barest possible length; this is where they want me to sleep, Eleanor thought incredulously; what nightmares are waiting, shadowed, in those high corners—what breath of mindless fear will drift across my mouth.

Yet, just because the two texts parallel each other in some regards does not mean they do so in all. Jackson ultimately appears more interested in the frisson generated by “The Yellow Wallpaper”‘s ambiguities (mental breakdown occurring in a quite-possibly-haunted setting) than in rehearsing an unmistakable feminist critique (during the extended rest cure forced upon her, Gilman’s narrator significantly comes to perceive a female figure trapped behind the wallpaper). Bailey, whose book is representative of the predominant feminist-psychoanalytical approach to Hill House, misses the mark when he targets the patriarchy as the arch-villain of Jackson’s novel. Eleanor’s problems trace back to her relationship with her unpleasant mother, not the father whose absence Eleanor regrets: during her childhood “it had seemed to be summer all the time; she could not remember a winter before her father’s death on a cold wet day”. The textual evidence further contradicts Bailey’s positing of Hill House as “the vast corrupt palace of the patriarchy itself”; with its “concentric circles of rooms” and rounded furniture, Hill House (whose very name suggests female contours) is more overtly figured as a “mother house”. Similarly, Bailey’s ultra-Freudian assertion that Eleanor “ascends the library’s phallic tower in a moment of ‘intoxicating’ sexual union with the patriarchy” overstates the case — in this scene, Eleanor (a character too sexually repressed to engage in wanton union) believes she is chasing after her “Mother”. Sometimes, Bailey should be reminded, a tower is just a tower.

Bailey is not the only horror author to make a nonfiction study of Hill House. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King devotes considerable space to Jackson’s novel, which he lauds as one of the only two (Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw being the other) “great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years”. King’s comments are not devoid of error — even as he extols the brilliance of Jackson’s opening paragraph, he flubs the analysis of the lines. Jackson begins: “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 implication here is that Hill House has been subjected to too much absolute reality, but King misreads the passage and claims that the house “does not exist under conditions of absolute reality; therefore it does not dream; therefore it is not sane”. Also, for all the admirable rigor King demonstrates in mapping out the novel’s various interpretive possibilities, he falls disappointingly short in his commentary by ruling out one particular reading: “the one thing we can be sure of is that there are no actual ghosts in Hill House. None of the four characters come upon the shade of the companion flapping up the hall with a rope burn around her ectoplasmic neck”. This last statement is true enough, yet signals how easily Jackson’s subtlety can mislead — just because the author is not so blunt as to let a ghost manifest front and center in the novel does not mean it is not there haunting Hill House.

King’s denial of a ghostly presence in Hill House represents the fundamental flaw in the literary criticism of Jackson’s novel. Time and again over the past half-century, the strange happenings at Hill House have been explained in either psychological (i.e. as the unconscious projections of the disturbed and telekinetically-gifted Eleanor) or vaguely-supernatural terms (i.e. the house itself has been malevolently-sentient since its construction). Marvin Kaye, in a bibliographical appendix to his anthology, Ghosts, qualifies his inclusion of The Haunting of Hill House, which is “technically a twisted story of haunted people”. Critics Dara Downey and Darryl Jones conversely assert: “The manifestations themselves, their multifarious nature, and the fact that they almost never take visible form, all imply an amorphous malevolent force, without origins or motives”. A closer reading of the novel, though, exposes the limits of such polarized perspectives, which jointly overlook the fact that Jackson has scripted a bona fide ghost story. Lenemaja Friedman is a rare critic who holds that “the reader must accept the possibility of ghosts…all members of the party share in seeing and hearing the same manifestations, which are not the product of any one person’s imagination”. But one can still take another step beyond Friedman’s generic discussion of “the spirits of the house”. For all her crafted ambiguity, Jackson embeds key clues within her text that point to a specific ghost haunting the premises. After fifty years’ worth of confusion, the time has surely come to identify (the origins and motives of) Hill House’s resident revenant.

Joe Nazare
Haunting Anniversary: a half-century of Hill House