"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Friday, July 17, 2015


Literary critic and Lovecraft expert S.T. Joshi was perhaps a bit too lavish in his praise when he called Nazareth Hill the equal of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House.  On the other hand, it's easy to see where the comparison comes from.  Both are a very specific sort of haunted house novel, leaving you wondering at the end if you had just experienced a supernatural event or simply been witness to a psychological break-down. But in Jackson's novel we never actually see anything, and can never really be certain if the house killed Eleanor or she self-destructed under her own internal pressures.  Nazareth Hill by contrast has for more in common with The Shining--more the Kubrick film than the King novel--because there are ghosts aplenty, and it seems pretty clear that they are trying to drive a father into committing unspeakable violence.  All three pieces may be in the vein of the psychological haunted house tale, but Hill House is infinitely more ambiguous than either, a trick only Jackson and Henry James truly mastered.

That out of the way, Nazareth Hill is still an excellent horror novel. Insurance agent and arachnophobe Oswald Priestly forces his eight-year-old daughter Amy to confront her irrational fear of Nazareth Hill, a burned out ruin in the center of town, one Sunday while the family is out walking.  He holds Amy up to a window to peek in and prove there is nothing there to be afraid of.  The problem is she does see something, and is so shaken by it she represses the memory.  

Nearly eight years later Amy's mother has died leaving she and Oswald alone.  Nazareth Hill has been refurbished into a luxury condominium complex, and the surviving members of the Priestly family are now actually among the people living there.  It's an exclusive place, and there is a whiff of "lord of the manor" English class snobbery around its residents.  The real estate company that revamped the place, meanwhile, is keen to keep its history hidden.  Nazareth Hill was once the haunt of a local witch coven, some of whom were eventually caught and hung from a tree there, and later of an insane asylum that was consumed by a suspicious fire, burning all the inmates alive.  Coincidentally perhaps, many of those inmates were survivors of the old, local witch families.

Neither Amy nor her father are the most stable of people.  Both are still damaged from the loss of Mrs. Priestly.  Oswald is priggish, over-protective, and a bit too concerned with propriety.  His arachnophobia is also off the charts.  Amy meanwhile suffers from headaches and takes homeopathic pills for them, and is working overtime to be the rebellious teenage daughter.  Oswald fears she takes after her maternal grandmother, a superstitious old woman obsessed with tarot, tea leaves, and spiritualism who eventually went around the bend.  There is some implication in this that Amy, through her maternal line, might have descended from the local witches that died at Nazareth Hill. More on that later.

The second half of the novel could be read in very Haunting of Hill House terms, as it follows Amy's descent into obsession with the history of the building and her father's parallel descent into paranoia that Amy is being consumed by the madness that took her grandmother.  The first half, however, makes a purely psychological interpretation harder.  After all, a photograph taken of Nazareth Hill shows a hideous face in one of the windows, the photographer is subsequently killed by the burned to a crisp undead that haunt the house, and an old man sees the apparition after.  So it is fairly clear the place is haunted.  This makes the shift into the second half all the more jarring, as if Campbell was not quite sure if he was telling The Shining or Hill House.  There is a terrifying scene later in the book that might lead the reader into thinking poor Amy really is going mad (it involves handwriting), but because Campbell played the ghosts so strong in the first half it is easy to pin the blame of them.  If the first half had been as subtle as the second, Nazareth Hill might have been more like Hill House or Turn of the Screw.  

Undeniably a page-turner, and packed with ample scares, the book also has something to say about domestic violence and the domination of men over women.  Nazareth Hill, the locale and not the novel, was the site of a circle of powerful women broken and hung by patriarchy.  The mental institution was more of the same, with "hysteria" replacing "heresy."  And as Oswald falls deeper under the spell of the place, he becomes very much the stern, puritanical Christian father we might find in Miller's Crucible.  The house has a pattern of men caging and trying to break women that threaten them, and this is brilliantly played out between Amy and her father.  Again, their are hints here (Amy's response to the house and it to her, the suggestion that her grandmother was--like the earlier witches--locked up for her interest in all things pagan and unChristian, and the climax of the novel) that make you think Amy descended from that original coven, and that she is doomed to suffer the pattern of male domination as a result.  Campbell prefers to imply rather than tell, and that works just fine for the atmosphere of the novel.

Nazareth Hill is certainly one of the better haunted house novels, but I am reluctant to call it "Haunting of Hill House" good.  It does (as the better novels of the genre do) strip the trappings and frills off the ghost to expose it for what it really is...the past refusing to let go of the present.  This definitely elevates it above hundreds of other haunted house tales.  It's a must read if you like "pressure cooker" haunted houses, and books that have a bit more to them than just a fear of the dead.

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