Friday, January 29, 2016

The Haunting of Hill House

This term, I'm teaching an online reading course for Seton Hill University's Masters in Writing Popular Fiction program.  I teach one every semester, but this term, the emphasis is "The Haunted."  So that means, of course, a subject near and dear to my black little heart:  Ghost Stories.

As part of the course, I get to choose books and movies that I feel best exemplify the genre in question.  The first book on the list?  Shirley Jackson's classic, The Haunting of Hill House. While some of my students don't particularly care for the book, there was a reason I chose it, and I'm going to use this blog to explain why.

Reason number one:  While those who read this book in modern times may find it cliche, or even boring at times (guilty), one thing that folks have to remember is that this book was first published in 1959.  Think on that for a moment.  That's more than fifty years ago.  Think about other things that just plain didn't exist in 1959.  I didn't.  My brother wasn't born until ten years later. Man had not yet reached the moon.  Women had the right to vote, but were still largely considered second-class citizens.  And, with a few notable exceptions, the haunted house book was largely unheard of.  If this book comes across as cliche, it's because it is the reason for the cliches.  You read that right.  So many writers that came after Jackson aped her style and plot points.  Why?  Because they were, for the time period, terrifying.  Sure, the work is dated.  Read any of the dialogue and, chances are, it comes across as forced or, at the very least, really old fashioned.  Well... Yeah.  But that's because it is old fashioned.  But keep in mind, it's not the cliche.  The tropes were born in The Haunting of Hill House, which makes it the original.

The second reason (which is actually closely related to the first one) is Jackson's treatment of her characters.  Okay, again, it was 1959.  It was quite bold of Jackson to put a character who was (arguably) gay (Theo) in such a prominent role. Also, look at the character of Elenor.  She's so very damaged, isn't she?  Even without the house doing its best to scare the holy bejeebers out of her, she's got issues.  She has so many deep-seeded psychological issues, it's little wonder the house preyed upon her as the weak link.  Again, things that weren't often done during the time period. I'm not saying her handling of the characters was terribly masterful (look at Mrs. Dudley), but having female protagonists, having protagonists that are damaged, having people with real problems... That was ahead of its time. 

Reason number three is that this story is a very good example of using a setting as a character in the story.  They way she describes the house, without a single straight line or plumb wall, gives the place its own foreboding nature.  The house itself makes the characters (and readers) uncomfortable just by existing.  No matter what happens between the walls, it's all the more horrific because those walls are inside Hill House.  The whole place has its own atmosphere.  It breathes, watches, reacts...  It could be argued that the house, not the ghosts, is the main antagonist of the story.  Granted, we'll be looking at another (and, in my opinion, better) example (Hell House by Richard Matheson), but this was a good primer that predated the next great portrayal by a dozen years.

The fourth reason is really very simple:  It's history. I'm a huge proponent of going back and rediscovering the roots of the genre.  Lovecraft.  Poe.  Blackwood.  Dickens.  Shakespeare.  Believe it or not, there is a great deal to learn from the old masters.  Gaston Leroux, Victor Hugo, Mary Shelly, Bram Stoker.  They all were very much before my time (and yours), and yet there is a wealth of knowledge to be gained from studying their works, especially if you want to be a writer.  

So, yes, Shirley Jackson's little haunted house story is a little dated, a little old, and maybe doesn't relate well to the modern age.  But I feel like it still works.  I'm of the opinion that it was one of the first truly great ghost stories.


  1. I'll admit, I'm a fan of the selections in this semester's RIG. It was a helluvalotta work, and I didn't always enjoy the readings, but I get they were there for a reason.

    If you were to double the number of books on the list (and I'm not asking that you ACTUALLY do this--students have to sleep sometimes) what would you add?

  2. Not sure. Head Full of Ghosts is currently moving up to the top of my reading list.