So, I usually don’t share content that’s exclusive to my newsletter, either at all or at least until a good amount of time has passed. And for those of you who don’t know, I write a monthly newsletter where I discuss my latest work, what i’m reading/watching, and, most importantly, I share an essay, podcast, or interview that dives into writing—the craft, the industry, the life.
But, I really love this essay on Hill House and Hereditary, and I want to not only share it, but use it for two purposes: First, to talk about my newsletter, which I just did. If you’d like to sign up for it, there’s two ways: Enter your email in the subscribe box on the right side of my homepage), or follow this link.
Second, because this particular essay is centered around horror, I wanted to briefly discuss my own horror work—specifically, my upcoming Vault Comics series (which is part of my new deal, discussed here): THE PLOT.
Let me be really candid: THE PLOT is the most personal, emotional book I’ve ever written, and it might just be my best. Josh Hixon's art is a revelation (take a look for yourself below), and Jordan Boyd's colors are simply gorgeous. My co-writer, Tim Daniel (yep, we're teaming up again, after bringing you two other horror series, Curse and Burning Fields!) and I are writing our hearts out, and I really think it shows.
THE PLOT #1 is described like this:
In order to receive... First you must give. When Chase Blaine's estranged brother and sister-in-law are murdered, he becomes guardian to McKenzie and Zach, the niece and nephew he hardly knows. Seeking stability for the children, Chase moves his newly formed family to his ancestral home in Cape Augusta... which overlooks a deep, black bogland teeming with family secrets.
Here's a few looks early looks at the first issue, which releases in September.
We have some of Josh's beautiful uncolored work:
Jordan's lush, atmospheric colors:, and the issue #1 cover below that:
Like I said, this book is incredibly important to me. Please, pleasepleaseplease, be sure to tell your retailer to have it in stock. Express your enthusiasm online, with friends--word of mouth is crucial. And, truly, thank you for all of it.
That out of the way, let’s get to the meat of this post—my thoughts on Hill House and Hereditary:
The Haunting of Hill House vs. Hereditary: An Examination of What Gets Satisfied
I adore these both these powerhouse works of horror fiction. What fascinates me, looking at them both, is how both stories are so very similar, broadly speaking, yet remarkably unique at the same time. They’re both wrestling with death, grief, loss, trauma, depression, even madness. What’s worth examining, though, is how both stories go about bringing these heavy topics to a conclusion. And it’s their conclusions that reveal what kind of story they each set out to tell, and their approaches couldn’t be more different.
Every story ends. We know this. And the ending is so crucial to any story. It’s the culmination of so many things—the plot, the themes, the characters’ journeys. It resolves mysteries, defies expectations with a compelling (and hopefully well-earned) twist, and, perhaps most importantly, leaves its audience feeling satisfied. Narratively speaking, there’s two types of endings I want to talk about—meaning and revelation.
When you look at Hill House, it’s evident that the storytellers—Mike Flanagan, the showrunner (he wrote and directed the bulk of the season), in particular—were far more interested with the thematic conclusion than the story conclusion. Flanagan was driving toward the emotional heart of the story and how it deeply affected the characters. In Hereditary, on the other hand, Ari Aster was—and I think it’s safe to say—more interested in focusing on concluding the story in a very particular way, rather than plunging into the themes. Now, the Venn diagram has some overlap, but I can comfortably say Hill House is more about meaning while Hereditary is more about revelation.
Let’s look at both, starting with Hill House.
Fundamentally, in its final hour, we learn that Hill House isn’t all that concerned with the whys of its story. When the credits roll for the last time, there’s so much we still don’t know. For starters, why was Hill House haunted? What, exactly, makes this house a nexus of life and death—how does that all work? We get a sense of a long and troubled history within the house’s walls (and if you’ve read the novel, you get an even richer sense of that history), but there’s no real concrete reason why the house is haunted and where it draws these otherworldly powers from.
Following on that, we never get a sense of the family’s powers. Like the house itself, we get a vague sense that some of the family has some kind of telekinetic/ESP abilities. Olivia, the family’s matriarch, has this sensitivity, and so does Theo. We get the impression Luke and Nell might, together, as well. But at no point do we really know what these powers are, where they come from, and how they work. We just know that some of the family can do things that aren’t entirely normal, and that helps open them up to the house’s influence.
While these are avenues that could have been explored more deeply in Hill House, they weren’t. And that’s not a bad thing—my point isn’t to draw attention to what Hill House (or Hereditary) should have done. This isn’t one of those shitty “How it should have ended” YouTube videos. Those belong in the foulest pits of the Earth. Writing, and I’ll say this forever, is decision-making. That’s roughly 98% of the job. You make story decisions based on the paths that you want to follow based on what interests you most about the story you’re telling. Now, it would be unfair of me to say that Flanagan was uninterested in pursuing this story angle. Maybe he was; I have no idea. What I can say, fairly confidently, was that he was less interested in answering these story questions and more interested in answering his thematic questions. His focus was on these remarkable characters and their journey—their trauma, their healing, and their struggles to remain a family amidst so many secrets, tragedy, loss, and more. The ending was an emotional payoff, providing its audience with a sense of growth and movement; the characters ended in different places—emotionally, in particular—than where they began, and their relationship to the house itself changes dramatically (especially Steven’s).
Now, let’s look at Hereditary and how it concludes story—which represents the opposite approach to Hill House.
In Hereditary, it’s pretty clear that Aster isn’t interested in providing his characters with the same kind of growth and change that Flanagan provides. And I know it’s different, talking about movies and television, particularly because of film’s more limited scope. But emotional character arcs are by no means foreign to cinema. The fact is, Toni Collette’s character, Annie, begins the movie in suffering, and she ends it still suffering. She’s gained some knowledge of the source of her suffering, but there’s no sense of catharsis. If you’ve seen the movie, you know there’s nothing even resembling catharsis, let alone healing. And that’s okay—stories don’t require any amount of boxes to be checked. It’s all about authorial intent, and Flanagan and Aster, while playing in similar narrative sandboxes, each have their own unique intent in their work.
Aster, again, is focused on revelation. The whys behind Annie’s profound suffering. Again—Hill House wasn’t interested in the whys (why the house was haunted, why Olivia was tormented by its influence), but Hereditary very much is. In the final, pulse-pounding act, we come to learn all about Annie’s suffering—where it comes from, the reason why her mother was such an overwhelming specter in her life, and what it means for her and, just as importantly, her entire family. The revelatory payoff is what ties the story together, not the emotion payoff (which isn’t to say Hereditary is absent of emotion—far from it). The conclusion to the film is utterly shocking, but—and this crucial for Hill House and Hereditary—it makes perfect sense.
Everything in Hereditary points to the film’s final moments. All of Annie’s suffering, her entire life’s trauma, we come to find, is very deliberate and even orchestrated. There’s a reason why her life is what it is, and the knowledge of how those strings being pulled are devastating, for Annie and the audience. Upon rewatching the film, we see all the arrows pointing to exactly what we, and Annie, learn in the end. There’s signs and hints in abundance; the tapestry of the film is the orchestration. Similarly, in Hill House, the tapestry of that story is the characters and their emotional stakes; rewatching that, its clear to see how Flanagan is leading them to their catharsis, thoroughly.
That, right there, is the vital takeaway: having the tapestry of your story fully aligned with the ending. No matter what you want your ending to provide your audience with—meaning, revelation, or something else—it has to work in perfect concert with the everything that’s come before. That’s why something like Lost and its ending doesn’t work; it spent countless hours building and teasing mystery upon mystery upon mystery, only to, in the final hour, abandon those mysteries and claim that the show was all about character. Yes, the show had remarkable characters, but satisfying just that part of the tapestry left so much of the show’s beating heart unfulfilled. Hill House and Hereditary fulfill their narrative promises, and there’s few things more crucial than that.