Spoiler alert: This post contains some spoilers for Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and links to an article that spoils more Shirley Jackson works. But I try not to spoil too much when I think people should read a work, which is the case here.
My book club’s selection for October was The Haunting of Hill House, which we paired with a viewing of The Shining. I picked the book. For one thing, Halloween is coming up so it seemed festive. For another, I read this article and posted the link to Teh Facebooks, which spurred a friend of mine to tell me that she’s a big fan of Shirley Jackson’s work.
I read “The Lottery” in tenth grade, a short story with a shocking ending that sent a deluge of hate mail Shirley Jackson’s way in 1948. I saw the godawful adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House made in 1999—I thought it was good because I was at an age where I thought anything over a PG rating must be “good.” I don’t necessarily read a lot of the horror genre, but I love authors who are sour on society like Flannery O’Connor and (to a less grotesque extent) Jane Austen. Shirley Jackson is very sour on society.
I really liked The Haunting of Hill House, pure and simple. Jackson’s prose is clean and clear like water. When I have read novels that are supposed to be “scary,” gore doesn’t tend to scare me (except in Blood Meridian, but Blood Meridian is always the exception to me). When I was in high school and a frequent movie-goer, Hostel was the goriest movie in town. Hostel didn’t scare me; Capote scared me because it showed the sequence the whole Clutter family were unwittingly murdered in their beds for no reason. A single, silencing shotgun blast will keep me up at night, but torture porn puts me to sleep.
The Haunting of Hill House is a classic set-up: Dr. Montague invites some people who have experienced psychic episodes to spend the summer at Hill House. Hill House has a tragic history steeped in deaths, and no one who ties to stay there can stand to stay. Dr. Montague invites Eleanor Vance, Theodora (or just Theo), and Luke Sanderson (the heir to the house) to stay so he can run his paranormal experiments. Hill House doesn’t disappoint for strange happenings.
If you read the article linked above, you read that Shirley Jackson had a morbid sense of humor. In The Haunting of Hill House, she does a remarkable job of balancing this humor with the scary parts. The characters are all rather wry and sarcastic with one another until they’re not—and that’s usually the point where something scary happens (or sad; Eleanor’s life has been no picnic). This technique put me on edge every time.
While Jackson’s narrator shifts the perspectives a little bit, it’s most closely aligned with Eleanor throughout the novel. Eleanor is a troubled young woman—young in mind more than body. At thirty-two, she still lives with her sister after spending her twenties nursing her sick mother. Eleanor has an imagination that runs wild from the novel’s beginning, and as her time in the house wears on it’s harder and harder for both Eleanor and the reader to discern where reality ends and her imagination begins. This is done so well you almost don’t notice it, and then have to go back and do a second read to try to untangle what just happened.
To be truthful, one of the strongest emotions I felt while reading The Haunting of Hill House was anger directed squarely at Stephen King. I have a complicated relationship with Stephen King, which I’ve addressed elsewhere. I read Carrie in seventh grade—mainly to scare people. I moved onto The Shining, I loved The Green Mile, but ‘Salem’s Lot was the last straw. I gradually fell out of love with Stephen King, but I was still a fan enough that I watched the terrible miniseries Rose Red. So intrigued was I by the story beneath the awfulness that I even read the accompanying Diary of Ellen Rimbauer to see if maybe it would be better (it wasn’t, but I guess it wasn’t actually written by Stephen King?).
In under five pages of The Haunting of Hill House, the reader has been introduced to Hill House itself and its haunting/psychic energy/scary stuff going on, and also to Eleanor Vance, who psychically triggered a storm of stones to fall on her house as a child. Both Carrie and Rose Red feature troubled young female characters with telekinetic ability who experience an unexplained rain of stones. Both Rose Red and The Shining feature buildings with tragic histories that are somehow alive, or conscious, and prey on the people inside of them. So if you find yourself wanting more from Stephen King than just scary stuff, Shirley Jackson may be your answer. (Yes, I know King doesn’t just write horror, but that’s what he’s known for I think we can all agree.)
I don’t want to punish someone for being successful, but it troubles me that Stephen King can leave his publisher over not offering him enough millions of dollars, while Shirley Jackson died in relative obscurity. I’m not sure I’ve ever been afraid of anything written by Stephen King. What amazed me about The Haunting of Hill House was that I found it scary even though—unlike The Shining (film and book) and The Haunting—is that there aren’t obvious ghosts, like previous caretakers urging other characters to kill. There is no axe-wielding dad. There is only Hill House, Eleanor, and the unexplained. Is Eleanor losing her mind? Is some kind of supernatural mental ability causing the strange happenings? It’s never truly explained, but I prefer it that way, because I’m never feel beaten over the head.
Since I read The Haunting of Hill House, I have bought three more Shirley Jackson novels and a collection of short stories. I think this is going to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.