In Stephen King’s On Writing he mentions Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House as one of the best ghost stories of that century – beautifully written, elegant, and sadly poetic – Shirley Jackson remains an underappreciated writer of a very short career.
Prior to her death in 1965, at the age of 48, Shirley Jackson had completed numerous short stories, novels and collections of work, children’s fiction, and two memoirs based on her experiences as a parent. Much of her writing was done while running a household and raising her children.
With a voice and clear focus on domesticity, Shirley Jackson channels an otherworldly version of Katherine Mansfield – with clear, modern prose that draws on details such as white curtains, or the cleaning of a pair of stone lions with washing soda and cotton swabs.
The Haunting Of Hill House remains one of my favorites.
Born in 1917, Shirley Jackson was a young adult living in America in the 1940s, and that is the experience for the reader – entering a place where people still dressed for dinner, and ladies understood the soothing nature of changing into comfortable shoes, and a pair of slacks was considered fashion-forward.
So for a reader in the 2017, reading The Haunting of Hill House (although copyright 1959) truly is a journey to a different time and place; the echoes and sensibility of the 1940s comes through in language, the playing out of relationships, and the overall formality of the piece.
The premise, a doctor gathering people with a connection to the supernatural to investigate paranormal phenomena by an invitation to stay at Hill House, draws together a remarkably well-balanced cast of characters in terms of gender balance and equality – Theordora (Theo), who has demonstrated some telepathic ability, Luke, a young man representing the family’s interests as owners of Hill House, and Eleanor, who was connected with unusual phenomena in her childhood, and it is through her eyes that we see the story unfold.
Although initially dismissing any special abilities, strongly empathic Eleanor brings flashes of insight into the psychological states of other characters, and she eventually develops a deep connection with Hill House, which eventually leads to her demise.
The story opens following the death of her mother, of whom Eleanor had spent the past eleven years caring for, and she flees her loveless life in search of something to happen. As she is driving, and thrilled to be alone and in the car she took without her sister’s consent, Eleanor absorbs the sights around her, and imagines herself living in the various places as she passes through. Once settled at Hill House, she confabulates an apartment of her own, furnished with the sights she has seen as she drove by.
Upon her arrival at Hill House Eleanor immediately dislikes the house, and is fearful of it. In studying the awkward lines of her room, she thinks “… and this is where they want me to sleep… what nightmares are waiting, shadowed, in those high corners – what breath of mindless fear will drift across my mouth…” With the arrival of Theodora, Eleanor is charmed by Theo’s easy manner and lovely clothes, and the two soon fall into a close friendship; as the doctor and Luke arrive, Eleanor reflects on a sense of belonging.
Witty banter flies among them, with the doctor providing the truth of the situation, he becomes the voice of authority, and the others revert to a child-like role. As the story unfolds, Eleanor’s comments become odd, and the most accurate (‘I don’t think we could leave now even if we wanted to.’), yet the others try to steer conversation away from her thoughts.
After a number of strange things happen to the four, loyalties waver, and Eleanor becomes both pushed aside and serves as a scapegoat. Her words and behaviour become odder, and her perceptions of those around her become more critical as she begins to align herself with the house. Sounds from within the house are heard through her ears, and her awareness is of the perceptions of the house. In the final scenes Eleanor refuses to leave, even when sent away, and upon departure she drives her car into a tree at the edge of the driveway, wondering at the last moment, why didn’t they stop me.
In that fatal crash Eleanor finally secures her future, in remaining at Hill House forever.
For more on Shirley Jackson, please see http://shirleyjackson.org/
A quick Google search will turn up many of Shirley Jackson’s stories available to read online, you might want to start over here at Bustle
Personal favorites include Charles, The Summer People, The Witch, The Possibility of Evil, the Twilight Zone-esque One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts, and the classic, The Lottery, and… oh, just buy an anthology of her work over at Amazon. You’ll be glad you did.