by Shirley Jackson
In the annals of haunted house stories, Shirley Jackson’s Hill House is the top of the turret, the cap on the cupola and the lightening rod on the widow’s walk.
Hill House is no dilapidated mansion. It’s not noir by association with tragic events or riddled with ectoplasmic vermin.
It is evil until itself.
Or is it?
Built in the 1880s, it is an architect’s fever dream: no angle meets at 90 degrees (although they seem to), no floor is level, no door ever remains open. The lower floor has concentric rings of rooms; rooms in the inner circle have no access to natural light or fresh air. With its dark colors, heavy draperies, wood paneling and odd proportions, it is not a hospitable house.
The novel revolves around the perceptions of 32-year-old Eleanor Vance, who has been recruited by paranormal researcher John Montague to come live at Hill House for the next three months. Montague has also recruited shop owner Theodora, who has demonstrated telepathic skills. The owner of the house has required that her nephew Luke Sanderson also participate.
Eleanor is a vulnerable, naive young woman. She has spent 11 years nursing a demanding, hated mother and the past two years living as an unpaid servant in her hated sister’s home. For her, the invitation to come to Hill House is an escape, an adventure and, possibly, a gloriously open door on a new life.
As she drives to Hill House, she spins fantasies about the sights on the road — a life in a cottage surrounded by gardens, falling in love in an oleander forest. A phrase from a song, repeats over and over in her mind, “Journeys end in lovers meeting.”
Jackson has done a spellbinding job in her depiction of Eleanor. As readers, we know she’s an unreliable observer; we know she’s inexperienced; we come to realize her pent-up rage toward her mother and sister and the life they have robbed her of. Yet we never lose sympathy for her.
In the end, that makes us as vulnerable to the seductions of Hill House as she is.
This book was twice adapted for film, the first, “The Haunting” in 1963 directed by Robert Wise and starring Julie Harris as Eleanor, Claire Bloom as Theo, Richard Johnson as the researcher and Russ Tamblyn as Luke. The second version was done in 1999 with Liam Neeson as the researcher, Lili Taylor as Nell (Eleanor), Catherine Zeta-Jones as Theo and Owen Wilson as Luke.
Coming back to this book after decades, I found myself much more impressed with the psychological power and complexity of this story than when I first read it.
The Author: Shirley Jackson (1916 – 1965)
Shirley Jackson established her reputation as a master of the horror tale with the publication of her short story “The Lottery,” in the New Yorker in 1948. The Haunting of Hill House, published in 1959, has been described by horror writer Stephen King as one of the most important horror novels of the 20th century.
A native of San Francisco, Jackson attended Syracuse University in New York. There she met her future husband Stanley Hyman, a literary critic and college instructor. They settled in North Bennington, VT; had four children and were known for their hospitality and frequent literary guests, including Ralph Ellison.
Over two decades, Jackson wrote six novels, two memoirs and more than 200 short stories. Her second novel, Hangsaman, published in 1951, was based on the 1946 disappearance of an 18-year-old Bennington College sophomore in the wilderness of Glastenbury Mountain near where Jackson lived. Her 1954 novel, The Bird’s Nest, features a woman with multiple personalities and her relationship with her psychiatrist. The book was marketed as a “psychological horror story,” which displeased Jackson. He final novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, published in 1962, was a Gothic mystery that Time magazine named one of the “Ten Best Novels” of 1962.
Her tales of life in a busy house with four children and a husband frequently appeared in women’s magazines such as Good Housekeeping, Woman’s Day and Colliers. Despite the light-hearted humor of these stories, Jackson had a difficult marriage to Hyman, who was repeatedly unfaithful and financially controlling. Her increasing weight and heavy smoking took a toll on her health. She died of heart failure in her sleep at the age of 48 in 1965.