One of the books I re-read religiously every couple of years, to remind myself why I write and what a good scary story is supposed to look like, is a slim little volume that packs in a ton of horror. The author needs no apology from me; she has been a staple of American literature since the mid-20th century, and her superb The Lottery pops up in high school and freshman English courses everywhere. She is of course, Shirley Jackson, and The Haunting of Hill House is her masterpiece.
With all due respect to Henry James and The Turn of the Screw, “Hill House” stands as the finest piece of psychological horror ever put to paper. If you can read this book without a racing pulse, you might be dead. There are no monsters, no real violence, no gore-splattered scenes to speak of. And yet Ms. Jackson is terrifying. There are sections of the book that—despite years of readings—still trigger my fear factor.
The premise is simple, recalling the ghost-hunting tales of the late 19th century. Anthropologist and parapsychologist Dr. Montague is conducting research into hauntings, and to do so has invited a handful of people to spend the summer with him in Hill House. Luke Sanders is a gambler, womanizer, and all-around cad whose family happens to own the place. Theodora is an artist, psychic, and (subtlely hinted at in this 1959 novel) a lesbian with a quiet cruel streak. And then there is Eleanor, a young woman who spent all of her adult life caring for an invalid mother, a shy introvert who dreams of a happy ending to her rather miserable life. As a girl, following her father’s death, it rained stones on Eleanor’s house for three days and nights. Montague invited her—as with Theodora—because her life as been touched by the psychic and he hopes to provoke Hill House into a response.
Hill House. Though Montague refers to it as “the Mount Everest of haunted houses” it doesn’t seem to be that haunted at all. There are no floating skulls, wandering apparitions, rattling chains. Though a large and rambling Victorian mansion, it remains fairly attractive; “within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut.” It is neither in decay nor in ruin. And yet Hill House is without question,wrong. Its architect made sure the angles were all off, 88 or 92 degrees rather than the logical 90. Doors are imperceptibly angled and set to close themselves. Everything is just a fraction off, creating a disorienting effect. People can and do get lost in Hill House.
They also die there in alarming numbers. The number of accidents, break-downs, and suicides in Hill House is on the extreme high end of the bell curve. At the stunning climax of the novel, one of the characters simultaneously suffers all three.
Jackson’s influence on other writers of the haunted house tale is profound and well-acknowledged, but no one has quite seemed to match the slow, quiet, and intense pressure of her novel. Ironically, a few films have come close; Kubrick’s The Shining and the original Robert Wise film version of “Hill House,” called simply The Haunting, came close (avoid however the terrible Liam Neeson/Catherine Zeta-Jones remake of ten years ago). Few writers—myself included—demonstrate Jackson’s remarkable restraint. There is not a single page in this story which goes over-the-top. Jackson hints, whispers, and occassional shouts “boo,” but never once descends into B-Movie tactics. Hill House, to borrow a phrase from Mr. John Tynes, is the equivalent of mental plutonium. Its invisible radiations sicken and poison the mind by mere exposure, unseen and unnoticed until it is too late. As the characters slowly break-down, the reader goes with them, and is forced to fight Ms. Jackson’s undertow.
I have been exploring the first few nooks and crannies of my own haunted house novel, something I have always wanted to tackle but never quite got around to. As I read The Haunting of Hill House again, I felt my nerve slightly fail. It would be impossible to write anything better than Jackson’s novel; one’s only choice is to try to do something different. “Hill House” has stood for fifty years as the apex of the haunted house tale, and is unlikely to ever be dethroned. And so, gentle reader, I leave you with the closing paragraph of that book;
...Hill House, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.