A report from Caitlin Coxon upon our February event on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, featuring Diana Wallace, Robert Lloyd and Dawn Mannay in discussion.
Director Robert Wise based The Haunting on The Haunting of Hill House after being frightened by the book. The abbreviated title was a suggestion by Jackson herself. Released in 1963, the film has since become a cult classic, and is often found near the top of ‘Scariest Film’ lists.
The Haunting of Hill House was a financial and critical triumph. A month before the publication date of October 16, 1959 – appropriately close to Halloween – Viking ran an unusual announcement in The New York Times, generating advance sales of about eight thousand copies and considerable buzz. Though there was the usual wonderment at Jackson’s dual writing personas, reviewers responded far more enthusiastically than they had to any of her previous novels. Some treated it as little more than a particularly well-written horror tale.
In The New York Times, Orville Prescott – often one of Jackson’s more skeptical critics – called it ‘the most spine-chilling ghost story I have read since I was a child,’ although he was unsure whether she intended it to be ‘taken seriously’ or had simply designed it ‘to give delicious tremors to readers who delight in one of the oldest varieties of folk tale.’
Some thought the book was too obviously Freudian: Time opened its piece with the snide line ‘When busy Housewife Shirley Jackson finds time for a new novel, she instinctively begins to id-lib.’ Jackson professed to think this was hilarious, claiming she had ‘never read more than ten pages of Freud,’ though she later invoked him regarding Castle.
But most critics recognized that Hill House was, as the Providence Journal’s reviewer put it, ‘a strong and scary parable of the haunted mind’ in the vein of Hawthorne, Poe, or James.— Excerpt from Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life
(New York: Liveright, 2016), p. 424.
Each of the houses that anchor Jackson’s final three completed novels – The Sundial, The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle – has its own distinct personality and indeed functions as a kind of character in the book. Her interest in houses and their atmosphere extends back to the beginning of her career: to her early fiction, which so often describes the efforts of women to create and furnish a home, and to the first family chronicles she wrote for women’s magazines. Her preoccupation with the roles that women play at home and the forces that conspire to keep them there was entirely of a piece with her cultural moment, the decade of the 1950s, when the simmering brew of women’s dissatisfaction finally came close to boiling over, triggering the second wave of the feminist movement.
In Hill House, which appeared in 1959, Jackson gathered powerfully all the objects of her long-time obsession: an unhappy, unmarried woman with a secret trauma; the simultaneous longing for a mother’s love and fear of its control; the uncertain legacies handed down by previous generations; and finally the supernatural as a representation of the deepest psychic fears and desires. The result, a masterpiece of literary horror on a par with Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, is arguably her best novel, and certainly her most influential.— Excerpt from Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life
(New York: Liveright, 2016), p. 409.
Critics have tended to underestimate Jackson’s work: both because of its central interest in women’s lives and because some of it is written in genres regarded as either ‘faintly disreputable’ (in the words of one scholar) or simply uncategorizable. The Haunting of Hill House is often dismissed as an especially well-written ghost story, We Have Always Lived in the Castle as a whodunit. The headline of Jackson’s New York Times obituary identified her as ‘Author of Horror Classic’ – that is, ‘The Lottery.’
But such lazy pigeonholing does an injustice to the masterly ways in which Jackson used the classic tropes of suspense to plumb the depths of the human condition. No writer since Henry James has been so successful in exploring the psychological reach of terror, locating in what we fear the key to unlock the darkest corners of the psyche.
‘I have always loved … to use fear, to take it and comprehend it and make it work,’ Jackson once wrote in a line that could be her manifesto.
In our fears and in our crimes, she believed, we discover our truest selves.— Excerpt from Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life
(New York: Liveright, 2016), pp. 6–7.
The first BookTalk of 2017 will focus on Shirley Jackson’s classic ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House (1959). Using the gothic motif of the haunted house, Jackson’s novel explores the complex gender politics of mid-20th-century America and their impact on the psyche of its protagonist, Eleanor Vance.