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Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Note: The Podcast Returns this week with a discussion of The Haunting (1963) Sunday at 10:30 ET/9:30CT.

Book Tour Update:
This Friday I visited the ESC 20 Library Roundup in San Antonio and had the opportunity to moderate a panel on YA with Mark Gregory Mitchell, Jessica Lee Anderson, Jennnifer Ziegler, PJ Hoover, Jo Whittemore, and Jenny Moss. We talked about why we write YA and got into a really fun discussion of how closely we work with publishers and editors to sculpt the work-- I talked about removing whole subplots from Alex Van Helsing. The whole thing was sponsored by Overlooked Books, a book distributor that organizes a lot of events I attend.


The Haunting of Hill House

On the way down and up I finished listening to Shirley Jackson's fine book The Haunting of Hill House. Which one is this one? The Haunting of Hill House came out in 1959 and is the reigning King (queen?) of haunted house stories. But you might recall that recently I read Richard Matheson's Hell House, so here it would be helpful to give a brief primer to help you keep all these alliterative haunted titles straight.


  • The Haunting of Hill House (1959), by Shirley Jackson. A professor who wants to study the supernatural gathers a small group of guests to record their experiences in a haunted house in order to prove the existence of the supernatural. All the scares are psychological and suggestive-- touches in the dark, pounding on walls-- but this horror of the mind is a wonderful read.
    • Movies: The Haunting (1963), a masterpiece by Robert Wise, and The Haunting (1999), which most people don't prefer (I don't either.)
  • Hell House (1971), by Richard Matheson, writing an homage to The Haunting of Hill House. Same plot as the Haunting of Hill House, except here the more modern writer Matheson makes the whole affair a very modern "expedition" into the house, where every member of the team is a professional ghost hunter or spiritualist of sorts. Where Jackson's book is all subtle horror and sublimated desire, this book is out there with gory and garish sex and violence. But Matheson is a beautiful writer as well, so this is still a fine gothic. 
    • Movies: The Legend of Hell House (1973), starring Roddy McDowall
I've already written about The Legend of Hell House here-- I love that book and movie! Go check it out! It's so strange to think that Matheson's book, which is a pretty hard-edged update (and just eleven years later) of Jackson is almost forgotten now, its movie subsumed with the wave brought on by The Exorcist, which came out at the same time.

But The Haunting of Hill House. Man, what a fantastic book. The book is told almost entirely from the perspective of Eleanor, Nell, a girl (woman, actually, Nell is 32 but feels always like a girl) whose home life is so unhappy that being invited on an expedition into a haunted house brings her the first peace and happiness she's felt in years. The book is really an exploration of Nell, who has sacrificed her youth serving her ailing mother and now yearns for an identity. She veers constantly into fantasy, throws herself into an instant friendship with the strong and confident Theodora (Theo), whose lesbianism is made clear but never named. (And also never comdemned, unlike in Wise's movie where an unhinged Nell insults Theo by calling her "unnatural.") 
Nell seems to be trying on different identities that range from fantasy to reality-- will she live in a cottage with Theo and spend their days antiquing, will she chase the callow owner of the house, who she realizes is basically uninteresting, will she stay forever at Hill House? 
As the book continued I yearned for Nell to find happiness, to grow up instantly and be able to distinguish fantasy from reality. She finds so much joy imagining her expedition as a family that the inevitable break-up is heartbreaking.

In The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson shows us how to write a book that reflects the soft, undulating waves of a person's mind, and shows us the torrent underneath. It's a fine book to read and learn from.

1 comment:

  1. Shirley Jackson is truly the master of horror. She weaves a dark tale of loneliness, depression, sadness, obsession and fear. Most readers, who have seen the remake, seem to be impressed with special effects and cheesy plots. This story is chilling not because of the supernatural themes, but because of the dark recesses of human nature. People don't seem to realize that the ending (without giving too much away) depicts Eleanor's response towards her feelings of isolation and depression.

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