The House on the Hill by Hal Porter, 1970
THE HOUSE ON THE HILL
by Hal Porter, 1970
"The House on the Hill," which is set in Japan, is a product of Hal Porter's second visit to that country. The author's first visit to Japan was for a period of two years after World War II as a schoolteacher of children of the Australian occupation forces. He also used the time to acquaint himself with the Japanese people and with the land and cityscapes of the country. A talented artist, Porter sketched scenes as well as wrote about the Japanese. His novel A Handful of Pennies (1958; revised 1980) was an outcome of this first visit. Porter's return visit in 1967 led to the travel book The Actors: An Image of the New Japan (1968), which was illustrated with his own drawings, and the collection of short stories Mr. Butterfly and Other Tales of New Japan (1970), which contains "The House on the Hill."
Porter's two visits to Japan provide an important context for understanding the fiction set there. In the novel A Handful of Pennies, as Mary Lord has observed in her 1980 book on Porter, "The Westerners in occupation not only corrupt the vanquished Japanese, each corrupts the other and himself." Even in defeat, Lord observes, the Japanese had the advantage of "an ancient culture and transcending philosophy." The literary products of Porter's second visit to Japan, 18 years after the first, show a continuing fascination with the country but a sharper satiric eye for the Japanese people, who by then had largely lost their traditional ways in imitation of a Western urbanism. Porter's country-bred, conservative Australian values see the disappearance of the old Japan, still vestigially present in the early postwar years, as a tragic loss. This sense of loss lies behind his satiric treatment of the "new Japan."
"The House on the Hill" introduces its third-person protagonist Perrot, who reemerges from the earlier story "Say to Me Ronald!," as an artist who has returned to Japan for a six-month sketching tour. Having braced himself for "near-skyscrapers instead of après-guerre ruins, for near-arrogance rather than après-guerre mock-humility," he finds things even worse than expected. Nor is he prepared for the astronomical costs of accommodations. It is this latter complication that leads to the story's principal focus—a house that is lent to him by an Australian family returning to its home country for four months.
Porter's houses of his childhood and youth in the Gippsland region of Australia help explain the Dickensian vivacity in his writings, in which objects become strangely animated and develop a life of their own. These houses are the forebears of the incongruous house Perrot inhabits temporarily on the outskirts of Tokyo in the late 1960s. The house is "a quasi-folly, Western, circa 1912, brick, in an ex-fashionable but still far from unfashionable suburb of Tokyo, a hilltop suburb." But the hilltop location cannot totally escape the rampaging city:
This relatively bucolic area was ringed about by a mesaand-butte horizon of office blocks, department stores, glassy factories, and scenes of Meccano-like towers. At each day's end chemically gorgeous sunsets flowed up beyond them to be replaced each night, by the topless coal-blue cliffs of night and the hideous splendour of twitching and feverish neon advertisements.
In this location the house stands and becomes the story's central character. But like human figures in stories it raises questions. What are its origins? Who owns it (or is owned by it)? What spirit inhabits it? The danger of giving a house such a central role is that description will take over from action or dialogue. Although this story is weighted toward description, it is description of a peculiarly vivacious baroque type, in which a strange history of Eastern and Western rivalries is revived:
Those Japanese, wealthy and upstart, who had, thirty and forty and fifty years before, sat disloyally on imitation Queen Anne chairs to nibble Huntley and Palmer biscuits and sip Twining's tea from cups with handles, had left the miasmata of their queerness and nullness to thicken slightly the contours of the ingle-nook lead-lights, to blur the crab-shaped designs on the brocaded wall-paper above the panellings, to tarnish the pelmets over the embrasures of bow windows through the sea-green diamond panes of which European shrubs, local hybrid roses, and smudges of Korean grass had once attempted to reproduce a St. John's Wood garden and lawn.
Behind such meticulous attention to detail is a fascination with the bizarre twists and turns of history in which the rules of one generation are ruled in the next. Japan is a crossroads.
Although Australians (Westerners) are presented as the current occupiers of the house, the presiding spirits are Japanese. These come in the form of three Japanese au pair girls hired by the Australian family who stay on in the house while Perrot lodges there. Porter contrives a paranoiac belief in his protagonist that these three women, like ugly witches, are watching him. He senses their relief when he leaves for sketching trips in different parts of Japan. The story's crisis is precipitated when Perrot returns early from one of these trips and discovers the house "lit up as a casino" and a party going on. Perrot realizes that he has made a social blunder when he enters the house, talks to the partyers, and proceeds to bed. His discovery of the au pair girls' "unsanctioned social spree" can only be humiliating to them, and, he reasons, "Nothing less than suicide or revenge could restore [their] lost face."
In another story from the Mr. Butterfly volume, "They're Funny People," the loss of face of a Japanese tourist guide leads to his suicide. In "The House on the Hill" the incident sparks revenge. First, Perrot is "sent to Coventry" by the girls whose party he has witnessed. But then comes the coup de grâce . When the Australian family returns, Yukiko, the leader of the trio of house sprites, tells the mistress of the house that Perrot has assaulted her. He is rapidly expelled, and the revenge for his invasion of the house has succeeded.
The story builds toward its conclusion around a tapestry of ancient wrongs and cross-cultural misunderstandings. Trivial in itself perhaps, the incident recalls this wider history. The Australian artist, a social outsider, cannot be humiliated by the incident since he cannot lose face. The mistress of the house and her Japanese au pairs, on the other hand, have customs to observe, appearances to uphold.
The tone of the story is comic-grotesque, recounting a small but illustrative chapter in the history of a haunted house:
an imitation Hazeldene or Craigholme perched on its hill, from the time of the assassination-and earthquake-riddled reign of the insane Emperor Taisho, like an exotic granary of phantoms, malformed charms, alien affectations, and the uneasy ardours of expatriates.
Here as elsewhere, Porter is a fatalist, concerned to record a consciousness of history rather than to change it.