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SHIRLEY JACKSON & THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE

July 1999
By Paula Guran

[Introductory confession: Several biographical paragraphs from the following essay were originally part of an earlier Jackson essay. But this article has an entirely different focus, so please forgive the self-plagiarism.]

I have mixed emotions about seeing Jan de Bont's new version of The Haunting. Robert Wise's 1963 The Haunting is one of my favorite horror movies and I don't see tampering with what is already near-perfection. Not surprisingly, considering my bookish demeanor, I think much of that earlier movie's success lies in the fact it is one of those rare films that stays fairly close to the plot and atmosphere of the extraordinary novel it is based on -- The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. But whether the new film is good, bad, or otherwise, in our culture any cinematic attention brings public interest to the literature it is based on -- and that, in this case, is reason enough to rejoice.

book cover Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is worthy of every ounce of notice it receives. Both critically and popularly acclaimed, The Haunting of Hill House is, unquestionably, one of the finest horror novels ever written. You'll find it near the top of every "best of" genre list compiled by readers, academics, critics, and mavens alike. Moreover, few horror writers of the last 40 years have not been influenced either directly or indirectly by Hill House and Jackson.

The story concerns several people brought together by a professor who wishes to investigate supposed paranormal phenomena in a country house. The dark energies of the house seem to somehow focus on Eleanor Vance -- an odd, lonely, somewhat mysterious 32-year-old woman. Despite the terrifying events that begin to occur, Eleanor feels -- for the first time in her life -- a sense of belonging and happiness in the house. The supernatural occurrences may or may not be directly connected to Eleanor. In fact, neither the characters nor readers are quite sure of what they experience in Hill House -- but all are profoundly effected by it.

Jackson's style -- the antithesis of the ornate embellishments of the Victorians or the overly detailed tedium of many modern novelists -- is almost sparse. Each word seems chosen to best convey the story and, even though description is minimal, the story is vividly told. Jackson suggests rather than explains, implies rather than reveals -- frightening more by what she does not say rather than what she does.

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. -- the first paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)

"I think," wrote Stephen King in Danse Macabre about the paragraph above, "there are few if any descriptive passages in the English language that are any finer than this; it is the sort of quiet epiphany every writer hopes for: words that somehow transcend the sum of the parts." Jackson's two opening sentences, rich with suggestion, convey not only a historical context -- always necessary for any haunted house -- but also immediately imbue the house itself with a sinister personality. Hill House not only fulfills its role as a Bad Place (the horrific archetype of any location with a powerful sense of wrongness), but it is also a character -- in fact, the antagonist -- in the story.

There is also the implication that Hill House appears to be quite ordinary. This is no rundown mansion or decrepit ruin, it's as normal looking, as, well...your typical psychokiller. Although a few of her short stories and this single novel contain suggestions of the supernatural, the genius of Jackson's fiction is primarily rooted in this discovery of the quiet evil that pervades ordinary life. Her fictional darkness stems from the seemingly mundane -- the house, the person, the action that is never quite what they seem to be.

The author decided to write "a ghost story" after reading about a group of nineteenth century "psychic researchers" who studied a house and somberly reported their supposedly scientific findings to the Society for Psychic Research. What Jackson discovered in their "dry reports was not the story of a haunted house, it was the story of several earnest, I believe misguided, certainly determined people, with their differing motivations and background." Excited by the prospect of creating her own haunted house and the characters to explore it, she launched into research.

She later claimed to have found a picture of a California house she believed was suitably haunted-looking in a magazine. She asked her mother, who lived in California, to help find information about the dwelling. According to Jackson, her mother identified the house as one the author's own great-great-grandfather, an architect who had designed some of San Francisco's oldest buildings, had built.

Jackson also read volume upon volume of traditional ghost stories while preparing to write her own, "No one can get into a novel about a haunted house without hitting the subject of reality head-on; either I have to believe in ghosts, which I do, or I have to write another kind of novel altogether."

Jackson wrote The Haunting of Hill House in the late 1950s. Already the author of three earlier novels, she was most noted for her short fiction -- especially the now-classic "The Lottery," the most controversial story ever published by The New Yorker magazine. The mother of four, she was married to teacher and critic Stanley Edgar Hyman who was supportive of his wife's literary talents -- but did little to assist in raising the children or keeping house around them. A dedicated mother, she was also interested in magic and witchcraft, was a delightful hostess and witty conversationalist -- and a very troubled woman. An eccentric iconoclast she smoked too much, ate too much, and was addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs.

The 1959 publication and subsequent reception of The Haunting of Hill House was everything the author could have wished for: critical praise, popular success and sales, and a movie deal that eventually resulted in a film with which she was pleased. But the triumph of Hill House was followed, as Jackson's biographer Judy Oppenheimer writes in Private Demons, "by a long undertow. Over the next few years a series of shifts occurred in Shirley's life...each tore another hole in her safety net."

Jackson wrote her next novel, the brilliant We have Always Lived in the Castle, during a period of psychosis. She suffered from intense anxiety and depression and felt persecuted by the citizens of the small Vermont town in which she lived. The fears that plagued her, however, were a source of her creativity. In an unsent letter to poet Howard Nemerov, she wrote, "...I have always loved to use fear, to take it and comprehend it and make it work and consolidate a situation where I was afraid and take it whole and work from these...I delight in what I fear. The 'Castle' is not about two women...it is about my being afraid and afraid to say so, so much afraid that a name in a book can turn me inside out."

Shirley Jackson (1965) By the time the book was finished, in 1962, Jackson had lost her delight in her fears and succumbed to them, retreating from the world. Beset by physical problems-- including obesity, asthma, and arthritis-- as well as emotional problems, she refused to leave her house for nearly three months. Even though helped by psychotherapy, she continued taking both tranquilizers and Dexedrine and the drugs may have exacerbated her condition.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, considered by many as her best work, is an eerie character study of a young psychopathic murderess that involves another memorable house, but nothing of the supernatural. It, too, received high praise, made the best-seller list, and was named as one of the ten best novels of the year by Time magazine.

Jackson found the strength to fight her fears, and, as always, continued to write. She begin another novel, Come Along With Me. Different from her other novels, the book humorously focused on a middle aged women (rather like the author herself) investigating the paranormal. But the work was left unfinished. As her mental health improved, her physical health deteriorated. She died of heart failure during her afternoon nap at age 48 in 1965

In 1966, Jackson's husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, edited a collection, The Magic of Shirley Jackson containing eleven short stories and three complete books. Come Along With Me, was published in 1968. Two other collections, The Masterpieces of Shirley Jackson (1996) and Just an Ordinary Day: The Uncollected Stories of Shirley Jackson (1997), have been posthumously published.

Hyman wrote, in an essay after Shirley Jackson's death:

If the source of her images was personal or neurotic, she transformed those images into meaningful general symbols; if she used the resources of supernatural terror, it was to provide metaphors for the all-too-real terrors of the natural...

For all her popularity, Shirley Jackson won surprisingly little recognition. She received no awards or prizes, grants or fellowships; her name was often omitted from lists on which it clearly belonged, or which it should have led. She saw those honors go to inferior writers, or to writers who were no writers, without bitterness, but with the wry amusement which was her habitual attitude toward her own life and career...

I think that the future will find her powerful visions of suffering and inhumanity increasingly significant and meaningful, and that Shirley Jackson's work is among that small body of literature produced in our time that seems apt to survive. That, too, she would have found wryly amusing.

Jackson's work has, indeed, survived and her visions of suffering and inhumanity have become even more significant and meaningful over the years. And now, perhaps, she would be wryly amused that yet another film based on her "ghost story" will soon garner her new readers 40 years after its first publication.


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