The house with a will of its own

In August, I moved to a new apartment. My old place was pleasant enough and roomy enough, with an open undivided space for the kitchen and sitting room; living right on Broad Street made for easy transportation and entertaining views of street shenanigans from my third-floor window. I didn’t want to lose its comforts, but I longed for an outdoor space to grow plants and read in the sun. I hoped to have a separate room for guests to sleep, to partition the spaces where I sleep and cook and play, and to welcome my aging relatives with fewer steps to climb.

The place that answered these needs, as it turns out, is a rather odd apartment. It is one section of a large house on the corner of a wide road (by South Philly standards) and a small narrow street; perhaps the building was once a storefront or a rambling family home. Now it is divided into four residences, although I cannot visualize how the four fit together. It’s not the usual one-unit-per-floor layout; my own unit is like a slice cut out of a layer cake, a stack of two floors and a finished basement. The layer cake analogy isn’t quite right either; as the unit seems to be pieced together out of odd shapes and surprising dimensions. For example, when I measured the windows for curtains, I found that no two windows have precisely the same height and width, and some sit further back on their tiled sills. It’s as though they were not intended to go together.

Having recently discovered the sinister pleasures of Shirley Jackson, I’ve been reading The Haunting of Hill House. Unsurprisingly, I’ve also been ready to jump out of my skin when things go bump in the night. One stormy night this month, the wind knocked over one of the plastic tubs that transported chrysanthemums to my patio planters. At least, I choose to believe that it was a flowerpot, tumbled about by wind, which made a pattern of three knocks outside my bedroom as I lay shivering under my quilt. I glanced at my unbothered cat, who was sleeping soundly next to my chest, and decided not to investigate further.

***

“Have you not wondered at our extreme difficulty in finding our way around?… Every angle”—and [Doctor Montague] gestured toward the doorway—”every angle is slightly wrong. Hugh Crain must have detested other people and their sensible squared-away houses, because he made his house to suit his mind.”

In college, I fell in love with Toni Morrison’s Jazz, a book about finding your own rhythm amidst the oppressive thrum of a big city. By the end of the book, the main characters “have arranged their furnishings in a way that might not remind anybody of the rooms in Modern Homemaker but it suits the habits of the body, the way a person walks from one room to another without bumping into anything, and what he wants to do when he sits down.” The image captivated me, as I consider myself talented at arranging small spaces to suit my habits. As a freshman, I persuaded my roommate to depart from the standard dorm room arrangement—twin beds, desks, and dressers in symmetrical formation—and position our furniture at perpendicular angles, which opened up a welcoming space for our new friends and floormates to sit. In my first apartment in Philadelphia, a small overheated square unit, I arranged my few belongings to form four discrete sections for my four primary occupations: cooking, sleeping, studying, unwinding with Netflix DVDs and Morrowind.

I can’t exercise such discretion in my new apartment, where there are few configurations that will accommodate bulky furniture like my bed, my 6×6 foot bookcase (which I ended up donating), or the enormous dresser that also served as my TV stand and bedside table in my old studio. The rooms are not laid out on a grid: my bedroom and the guest room each have six walls of varying widths and angles. Radiators and support beams jut out irregularly from the uneven walls; several full- and half-walls are covered in tile, precluding any wall art or hanging shelves or electrical outlets. The walls that can be penetrated aren’t quite at right angles: the floor slopes, or the ceiling, or both.

Ideally, I would arrange a clearer path from the stair to the second-floor patio; ideally, I would position the dining table near an outlet so that I could work on my laptop there. Instead, the furniture remains more or less where it was placed by the movers, and I pilot myself around it with hardly any thought.

***

“Angles which you assume are the right angles you are accustomed to, and have every right to expect are true, are actually a fraction of a degree off in one direction or another. I am sure, for instance, that you believe that the stairs you are sitting on are level, because you are not prepared for stairs which are not level—”
They moved uneasily, and Theodora put out a quick hand to take hold of the balustrade, as though she felt she might be falling.
“—are actually on a very slight slant toward the central shaft; the doorways are all a very little bit off center.”

There is a step up from the kitchen to the sitting room; I’ve marked it with pale green duct tape, but it still catches the unwary who don’t realize they have to step down. On the staircase to the second floor, the top and bottom steps are a little taller than the others. The staircase into the basement is a spiral. I’ve gotten accustomed to moving up and down them; I don’t always remember to warn guests to watch their step.

***

“Of course the result of all these tiny aberrations of measurement adds up to a fairly large distortion in the house as a whole. Theodora cannot see the tower from her bedroom window because the tower actually stands at the corner of the house. From Theodora’s bedroom window it is completely invisible, although from here it seems to be directly outside her room…. It is”—and his voice was saddened—”a masterpiece of architectural misdirection.”

When I visited my mom in September, I drew a floor plan from memory to help us both understand where I might have room for the additional furniture she wished to bestow on me. As I sketched out the lines, I realized with relief that my basement is not directly underneath the first floor of my unit. When I returned home, I walked up and down the spiral stair a few times, turning my head like a dancer to mark the location of the sitting room window and the tiled wall that divides my unit from the next one over. I no longer freeze and turn the television volume down when, as I settle in my underground den, I hear sidewalk conversations and doors opening as clearly as if they are in my own home. What a relief to know it is just the neighbors coming and going!

There is a door in my basement, on the wall that divides my unit from the next one over. I’ve never opened it; I was told my front door key would fit the lock, but it doesn’t. One of the movers joked that he wouldn’t live in an apartment with a mysterious knobless door in the basement. I believe that, as the realtor says, there is only a water heater behind the door. I keep the extra seating for guests in front of it.

I live in the outermost unit, so I am still not sure what, if anything, is underneath my first floor.

Luke came, hesitated in the cold spot, and then moved quickly to get out of it, and Eleanor, following, felt with incredulity the piercing cold that struck her between one step and the next; it was like passing through a wall of ice, she thought, and asked the doctor, “What is it?”
The doctor was patting his hands together with delight…. “The heart of the house.”

My new apartment stayed cool throughout the humidity-drenched heat of August and September. Now that the temperatures have dipped into the thirties and forties, I find that the unit holds warmth just as well, even in the basement. The chilly exceptions are the mudroom—right by the front door and thankfully isolated from the rest of the unit by a second door to the kitchen—and, inexplicably, the trapezoid closet in my bedroom, although the bedroom itself is quite cozy.

***

“What happens when you go back to a real house?” Eleanor asked. “I mean—a—well—a real house?”
“It must be like coming off shipboard,” Luke said.”

In my second apartment in Philadelphia, all the electrical outlets and light switches were installed upside-down: the switches said NO instead of ON. In my last apartment, a bird appeared on my pillow one morning after I’d spent the weekend with all the windows and doors closed against a snowstorm. In every apartment I’ve lived in after the tiny studio, the hot and cold taps are reversed, so I instinctively feel for the temperature of water from a tap no matter what sink I’m using.

“It must certainly affect people in some way,” the doctor said. “We have grown to trust blindly in our senses of balance and reason, and I can see where the mind might fight wildly to preserve its own familiar stable of patterns against all evidence that it was leaning sideways.”

In The Haunting of Hill House, the erratic lines and obscure patterns of the haunted mansion suggest malice, pathways for an antagonistic force to threaten its visitors. It’s delightfully spooky until it becomes violent and dangerous.

But suppose you don’t fight wildly against irregularity? Suppose you, like the doctor’s wife, embrace the unfamiliar? She may be intended to be a comic figure, but of all the inhabitants of Hill House, her brisk familiarity with the unknown made the troubled house almost… welcoming.

“The library?” [said Mrs Montague.] “I think it might do. Books are frequently very good carriers, you know. Materializations are often best produced in rooms where there are books. I cannot think of any time when materialization was in any way hampered by the presence of books. I suppose the library has been dusted?”

[All block quotes are from the Penguin Classics edition of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.]

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