Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

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.

I can't think of a better way to kick off my tribute to ghost stories. This is quite possibly the best opening paragraph of any horror novel, and the book that follows is certainly in the running for the best ghost story ever written. It tells the story of a team of investigators who head to Hill House, the site of several notorious deaths, as they attempt to scientifically prove the existence of the supernatural. It may not surprise you to learn that things do not go well for them.

The story is centered around the character of Nell, a shy and lonely woman who seems to have some fairly serious psychiatric problems. The book is ambiguous as to which of the supernatural phenomena are real and which are in Nell's head or possibly even created by her, but this in no way detracts from the horror. The Haunting of Hill House is, quite simply, one of the most terrifying books I have ever read.

It's not a long story, but very few really first-rate horror stories are longer than a couple of hundred pages. Brevity is the soul of horror in many ways; Jackson never allows the reader to become comfortable in the surroundings she paints for us. And the surroundings are the thing here; as that opening paragraph implies we're not dealing with the ghost of someone in particular, but with a Bad Place.

The Haunting of Hill House has been very influential on books by other horror writers, probably most notably on Stephen King's early novel The Shining. In my opinion, none of these imitators has ever equalled it.

It has been filmed twice. The first film version, 1963's The Haunting, was directed by Robert Wise, who was very much paying tribute to one of his mentors, producer Val Lewton. Lewton's movies are known for taking penny-dreadful titles like Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie and crafting smart and elegant suspense stories from them. Wise's version of The Haunting is nastier than most of Lewton's work, largely thanks to its fidelity to Jackson's story, but it still falls within the subtle horror category that Lewton exemplified.

There was a second adaptation in 1999; I have not seen it and plan to continue avoiding it. I don't want to sully this tribute to Jackson's story by talking about it further.

If you're feeling brave, give this book a go. If you're feeling slightly less brave, the first film adaptation is an acceptable substitute, but you really should go for the full-strangth original.


  1. I don't think I ever really gave the Haunting of Hill House or the film The Haunting a fair go; thanks for the assessment - it makes me keen to revisit both and pay them greater attention. Aces.

  2. I've always felt that the perfect Ace Books (US)-style "double novel" (a books with two front covers) would be one featuring those two brilliant 1959 short novels, PSYCHO by Robert Bloch and THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, perhaps with a selection of photos from their fine film adaptations in the center...and absolutely no note taken of the utterly abysmal "remakes" of those films in the '90s.

  3. The most disappointingly derivative work from THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE in my experience was Richard Matheson's HELL HOUSE, an almost slavish recasting in a more perfervid manner (Matheson is usally much better than his novel would suggest). And, amusingly, the film version of that one almost exactly reversed the revision of the novel's title, to THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE.