BY ANDREW MOODY
Shirley Jackson had the inspiration to write a ghost story from two sources: firstly a book she was reading on Victorian psychic researchers (see John Gray’s The Immortalization Commission for a detailed critique on this dubious art) and secondly a horrifying-looking house on 125 street New York that she had nightmares about for months afterwards. Stephen King wrote in his classic assessment of the horror genre Danse Macabre: “the truest definition of the haunted house would be ‘a house with an unsavoury history’…the haunted house tale demands a historical context.”
The first, dreamlike paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s novel fits these criteria nicely and is so perfectly constructed as a sequence of horror sentences that you know you are in the hands of a master.
“No live organism can continue for long to exist safely 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.”
Paranormal scientist Dr Montague sends out a series of letters to people of interest, those who have had psychic experiences for example, to spend the week with him to conduct psychical experiments. Only three people reply, Theo, an attractive woman with the feline touch of lesbianism, Luke, an heir to the property, and Eleanor, a lost soul in her thirties who steals her sister’s car to make the journey. Throughout the novel her mantra is: journeys end where lovers meet. But Eleanor, who has psychic ability and once rained stones onto her mother’s house (a detail Stephen King plucked for his debut Carrie) has met Hill House.
Eleanor Vance, considering the novel was published in 1959 can be classified as an archetypal New American Gothic heroine: narcissistic, inward looking, troubled, obsessed with identity.
She had taken to wondering lately, during these swift-counted years, what had been done with all those wasted summer days; how could she have spent them so wantonly? I am foolish, she told herself early every summer, I am very foolish; I am grown up now and know the values of things. Nothing is ever really wasted, she believed sensibly, even one’s childhood, and then each year, one summer morning, the warm wind would come down the city street where she walked and she would be touched with the little cold thought: I have let more time go by.
Hill House brings from the four a closer scrutiny of their own identities, and Eleanor’s psychic abilities coupled with the innate evil power of the house, see her singled out, with COME HOME ELEANOR scrawled first in chalk and later blood on the walls. Children’s screams wake up Theo and Eleanor but not Luke and Dr Montague, and the architecture of the house makes it mad and maddening. Even with Dr Montague holding the doors open, they all slam shut before the rest can come, and when the lights go out, Eleanor holds onto a hand that disappears as soon as the lights go back on. Horror is, at heart, tragedy and deep sadness, and the book ends on the correct balance of savagery and mourning. For a horror novel, it is nearly universally regarded as fine literature, which it certainly is.
It’s been filmed twice as The Haunting, first by Robert Wise in 1963, an eerie film that gave a lot of nightmares to a lot of children, and in 1999 by Jan de Bont, an insipid CGI dud that scared no one and flopped at the box office.
There is now a successful Netflix show, The Haunting of Hill House that embellishes on the novel but stays true to the spirit.
The book has inspired horror writers for fifty years including Peter Straub, Neil Gaiman and Stephen King, and is regarded as the daddy of haunted house books, based on its plot and characters, but also Jackson’s trancelike prose which grips you to the page and makes you jump at any sudden noise.
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