In front of you is a hallway. What do you see?
Carpeted, wood-panelled, tall, wallpapered in aqueous hues? Or perhaps it’s too dark; you’re running from the bathroom to your room, trying not to glimpse yourself – or what could be behind you – in the mirror at the end of that hall.
Glimpses and sound-bites, they are partly what hallways are about. From your room off the hallway you hear footsteps approach, then pause, and turn. Maybe a note is slipped under the door with a sound like ‘fsp’. Or from the hall you hear a muffled conversation from which you are excluded, or sounds of pleasure from someone who thinks they’re alone. Who forgets about the thin membrane of the wall.
When Miss Bürstner is trying to get rid of K, in Kafka’s The Trial, she slips out into the hallway and asks him to come and look at the light under the captain’s door: ‘He’s put a light on and he’s laughing at us’, she says. K leaves her room but then kisses her on the mouth and then ‘over her whole face like a thirsty animal lapping with its tongue when it eventually finds water’. He keeps going like this, in the hallway, until there is a noise from the captain’s room.
Hallways are featured a lot in The Trial, with sounds of dragging steps and breaking porcelain, and containing an anxious, pacing K.
Lily Briscoe, in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, has left her paints in the hall. Time passes. Objects stacked in hallways are meant to be used, or moved elsewhere. The space is transitional. Lily Briscoe is meant to paint again. Hallways are to be passed through; you cannot live in a hall. It is too enclosing. Perhaps that is why hallways are a common image in horror movies. Being stuck in one would be like being caught in limbo. There is no sustenance, no entertainment (besides those ‘glimpses’, perhaps) available. It is the next thing to being stuck in the walls themselves, to being part of the structure of the building, instead of living within its open areas of light and appliances.
There are two transitional moments in hallways in Nabokov’s Lolita. Humbert ‘rearranges his respiration’ in the hallway before facing Charlotte’s wrath over the incriminating notes that she has just found. It is a pivotal turning point in the novel. Much later, in a hallway ‘ablaze with welcoming lights’, Lolita takes off her sweater, shakes her ‘gemmed hair’, stretches towards Humbert two bare arms, raises one knee, and says, ‘Carry me upstairs, please. I feel sort of romantic tonight.’ Very soon, everything will be different.
Waiting is done in hallways. Well, maybe not for the rich. But some can’t pay the rent and the locks are changed on their apartment doors, or they have a child in hospital, or they took the cheapest flight and have a ten-hour layover, or they are young and waiting outside the principal’s office. In hallways and corridors they wait to open and close a door, wait on small hard chairs with walls bearing down on them.
There are other structures that share a psychological affinity with hallways, structures rectangular or tubular through which elements move from one end to the other. Tunnels, underground train networks, a waterslide I rode on frequently as a child that, as an adult, resurfaced as a structure of nightmarish claustrophobia. The catacombs are a hallway of bones, packed-earth quiet, smelling of old paper and lemon. What you glimpse there you do not forget. It imprints upon you like the memory of your grandfather walking naked down the hallway from bathroom to bedroom. And then there are structures we cannot inhabit: pipes, wires, arteries. Substances move through in one direction or another, and take doors on either side to other rooms: pools, appliances, organs.
Kubrick knew the power of the hallway. Though the hallways in The Shining are large, they are by nature claustrophobic. The camera is contained, enveloped by walls, and must go forward or backward, to the ghosts of the twin girls or following Jack Torrance, circling the house, being driven mad by containment. There is danger coming in from the hall to the rooms, the axe hacking.
Think also of the halls of the future machine, those bright, colourful tubes of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Might life not be a highway, but a hallway? Where key memories and influential people are deposited behind doors? We can walk back and visit them, or we hear them occasionally (sometimes unexpectedly) calling as we walk onwards. Sometimes we want to stay in a particular room, whether it is welcoming or not. We can’t move forward.
Because there’s that mirror at the end, you see, which can be very hard to approach.
Might an author be a hallway, too? Each door leads to a specific narrative, and perhaps we can imagine a door on the other side of the room through which the reader enters. The walls are thin and each text may ‘overhear’ the others, themselves in dialogue with all the author’s influences, which may furnish the shelves in each room, or lie beneath the floor, beating, like Poe’s tell-tale heart.
Many of my works are small, perhaps just overstuffed cupboards. But hello, there’s a crawlspace above and I have glimpsed you, briefly, before moving on.