Parked motorcars line the street and a man wearing a spotted bow tie lolls outside the hotel sipping a glass of something amber. His left arm blocks out half of the hotel sign. Eden, it reads now.
‘Fully booked, love,’ he mutters without looking up.
‘I live here,’ says Betty curtly and squeezes past him.
Inside, the big room is misty with tobacco warmth. Men stand shoulder to shoulder, still wearing their overcoats, and Mother wriggles between them doling out cups of tea and
cinnamon biscuits and toothy smiles.
‘Want your grushans topped up with a drop of stout?’ she calls to a man in an armchair, with an empty teacup balanced on his knee. He ignores her.
‘The killer has to be a local,’ another of the reporters is saying to no one in particular.
‘Apparently her blood was still warm when they found her,’ chips in a younger one with a cigarette wedged in the gap between his front teeth. ‘And the Inspector just told me that the first poor lass was stabbed in the stomach forty times… Or was it fourteen?’
‘Mind your lip, Tony,’ says the eldest with an Irish accent. ‘There’s ladies about.’
‘I’m just saying it like it is.’
‘Well don’t,’ snaps the bow-tie man, stepping into the room. They all quieten. His face is stern but he slips Mother a wink. Betty pretends not to notice.
Taken from The Unforgotten, Chapter 1.
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.
After three weeks in Killingbeck, Matty came home with a tube coming out of his side and a bag to collect the pus from his lung. The homecoming was subdued. Every other time he’d come close to death and then survived we’d treated it as a triumph. This was the first time I caught myself wondering if it might have been better if he’d died.— Cathy Rentzenbrink, The Last Act of Love (2015), p. 100.
Everything apart from being with Matty seemed irrelevant. I’d always kept diaries and notebooks, but now I wrote nothing. My words had gone AWOL. I couldn’t bear to read the pointless, silly rubbish the old me had written so I tied all my diaries up in two carrier bags and chucked them into the skip at the back of the pub.— Cathy Rentzenbrink, The Last Act of Love (2015), p. 52.
Misunderstanding abounded. Because we always talked positively and hopefully about Matty, people tended to think he was doing better than he was and were then shocked if they visited him to find that his gaze was either vacant or his eyes looked over to the right, that his skin was deteriorating and that he had spots and blackheads for the first time in his life.— Cathy Rentzenbrink, The Last Act of Love (2015), p. 49.
We were shown to a little room with a table and chairs, a kettle and an ashtray, and drank tea for what felt like hours and hours. I noticed a Guinness stain on the bottom edge of my cream shirt, knew that it would have happened as I’d leaned over the pump at work earlier, and thought how much the world had changed in the lifetime of that little stain.— Cathy Rentzenbrink, The Last Act of Love (2015), p. 21.
The years collapse, and I see myself kneeling and crying and begging, with my hands clasped together in prayer, talking to some unknown force.
Please don’t let him die, please don’t let him die, please, I’ll do anything, only please don’t let him die.
What strikes me now as it never has before is that I can’t say my prayers went unanswered. I was given what I asked for. My brother did not die. But I did not know then that I was praying for the wrong thing.— Cathy Rentzenbrink, The Last Act of Love (2015), p. 3.
Doctor Benedict Lambert, the celebrated Benedict Lambert, the diminutive Benedict Lambert, the courageous Benedict Lambert (adjectives skating carefully around the essence of it all) stands to address the members of the Mendel Symposium. Applause has died away. The silence—eyes watching, breath held, hands stilled above notebooks supplied by courtesy of Hewison Pharmaceuticals—is complete. There before the good doctor, ranged in rows like sample tubes in a rack, are all the phenotypes one could wish to see: male and female, ectomorphic and endomorphic, dolichocephalic and brachycephalic, Nordic, Mediterranean, Slav, Mongoloid (three), Negroid (one). There are chins cleft¹ and normal, hair curly² and straight, eyes blue³ and brown and green, skins white, brown, yellow, and black,4 crania bald5 and hirsute. It is almost as though the organisers (the Mendelian Association of America in conjunction with Hewison Pharmaceuticals and the Masaryk University of Brno) have trawled through the whole gamut of human variation in order to come up with a representative genetic mix. And yet …
… and yet there is a constancy that is obvious to all, but consciously perceived only by the truncated figure up on the podium: each and every one of the earnest watchers is subsumed under the epithet phenotypically normal.
¹ autosomal dominant
² autosomal dominant
³ autosomal recessive, probably controlled by genes at two different loci
4 polygenic control
5 sex-limited autosomal dominant
— Simon Mawer, Mendel’s Dwarf (Abacus, 2011 ), pp. 1–2