Every time after reading a modernist piece, I feel the need to snap my fingers in applause – like at a fancy poetry reading. You think it is incredibly cool, but you do not understand a word they are saying. Such was the case with Virginia Woolf. I wanted to get acquainted with Woolf for a while now, so I thought her short fiction might serve as a good appetizer to familiarize myself with her style of writing. Now I believe that Mrs. Dalloway would be quite a journey for me.
The story describes a ghostly encounter that a young couple has with a male and female apparitions that haunt their house in search of something. Woolf does not name exactly what that “something” is, continuously referring to the object as “it”. The reader is kept guessing what it is they are looking for, and where it can be hidden. The location of “it” constantly changes, as the ghosts seem to look for it in the garden, drawing room, and upstairs, in the couple’s bedroom. Finally the object of their desires (the”treasure”, as it is called several times) is revealed by the young wife, who wakes up with realization what the ghosts are really searching for. The final sentence, that gives the “treasure” a name, is very powerful, making sense of the entire composition.
The style, in which the story is presented, is very different from the descriptive Victorian writers I am used to – it is vague, hinting, and confusing. Woolf uses a lot of vivid descriptions that paint fantastic pictures of moving, living settings.
The wind roars up the avenue. Trees stoop and bend this way and that. Moonbeams splash and spill wildly in the rain. But the beam of the lamp falls straight from the window. The candle burns stiff and still. Wandering through the house, opening the windows, whispering not to wake us, the ghostly couple seek their joy.
Doesn’t that just create a violent mixture of color, sound and movement in your head? Woolf’s descriptions are amazing! But I also love how reserved they are. A half-sentence, a brief reference to an earlier part, and on she goes, not bound to explain us anything, consumed in her own thoughts. I think anyone reading The Haunted House should take their time with it, perhaps even doing it twice. It certainly seems like too much the first time around; but when the words are given a chance to settle down, the true beauty of the story finally starts to shine through.
Rating: 4/5 – great descriptive language; reads as a brief episode, not a complete narrative.
Source: the story can be found in The Haunted House and Other Short Stories anthology [ISBN-13: 978-0156028035]. It also belongs to public domain in Canada and US, and can be easily located online.