Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A Very Literary Halloween, Part 4 - The Haunting of Hill House

For this year's celebration of the macabre, I'm journeying through American horror fiction by revisiting some of its greatest writers. For All Hallows' Eve, we've saved perhaps the best for last - "The Haunting of Hill House," Shirley Jackson's definitive haunted house novel.

Legend has it that when screenwriter Nelson Gidding visited Shirley Jackson about adapting "The Haunting of Hill House" into a movie, he suggested that the ghostly events in the story were actually products of the protagonist's nervous breakdown. Jackson told him that was a nice idea, but that the book was definitely about the supernatural. And so, through Jackson's willingness to embrace genre, what could have been forgotten as trite "psychological fiction" quickly became one of the most influential Gothic horror novels of the 20th century.

The plot is straightforward, almost elemental. A researcher of the paranormal, Dr. Montague, invites three strangers to stay at Hill House over the summer. He explains that numerous tragedies have unfolded at the isolated mansion over the decades, and theorizes that the house is a "place of contained ill will." Unfortunately, that proves to be all too accurate...

Jackson's novel isn't the first haunted house story, but it's unique in that it deftly balances eerie happenings with the emotional states of its characters, a mix of the paranormal with creeping insanity which has influenced everything from "The Shining" to "Sinister." Also helping set "The Haunting of Hill House" apart is Jackson's taut, evocative prose, which sinks its hooks in from the very first lines:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, 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.
That passage is so good that you can excuse its reuse in the book's ambiguous, unsettling ending. By most accounts, home was a prison for the Jackson, and "The Haunting of Hill House" presents a nightmare scenario - even death may not be an escape.


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