The spooky brilliance of Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House is one of the most influential tales of the supernatural ever written. It was Jackson’s second-last novel, and sealed her reputation as a writer of elegantly written but emotionally devastating horror fiction. It ensured that she would always be held in high esteem by the genre’s fans and creators: for instance, Stephen King is one of her biggest cheerleaders, and several of his novels, including The Shining (1977), are visibly influenced by her work (the Overlook Hotel, like Hill House, is a very bad place indeed for visitors with psychic powers).
However, the fact that Jackson was also one of the most commercially successful and and versatile American writers of the post-war era is often overlooked. Even before she published her first novel, she was a literary celebrity thanks to her infamous short story The Lottery. When it was published in the New Yorker in June 1948, the tale’s shocking conclusion attracted more hate mail than anything previously featured in magazine, and made Jackson one of the most talked-about writers in the country.
Although the Netflix TV series of the same name is not, as show creator/director Mike Flanagan has made clear, a direct adaptation, many of Jackson’s most notable themes (and most memorable scares) have been sensitively woven in to the fabric of the show.
During her lifetime Jackson published six novels, several children’s books, and more than 80 short stories, many of them, like The Lottery, justly considered classics. In addition, thanks to the many humorous family sketches that she published in women’s magazines such as Ladies’
Home Journal, Jackson, a married mother of four, was one of the most publicly visible “housewives” of the 1950s – so much so that her writing was critiqued by Betty Friedan in The Feminine
Mystique (1963). Themes related to domesticity, conflicted motherhood, unstable identity, and female anger pervade Jackson’s fiction. Four of her six completed novels revolve around young women suffering from severe mental disturbance. In The Bird’s Nest (1954), The Sundial (1958) and We
Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), as in Hill House, the connection between domestic space and psychological landscape is exploited to unsettling effect.
In an intriguing counterpoint to the generally cheerful familial chaos of her comic writing, the nuclear family in Jackson’s fiction is characterised by secrecy, dysfunction, and resentment. These tensions result in murder in both The
Sundial and We Have Always Lived In the Castle, the latter of which is set in the aftermath of a tense family dinner that wiped out six members of the wealthy Blackwood clan (somebody spiked the sugar bowl with arsenic).
The Haunting of Hill House owed much to Jackson’s lifelong interest in architecture and in the investigations carried out by the Society for Psychical Research. Having already decided that her next novel was going to be about ghosts (although, as she noted in her essay Experience
and Fiction, she was, initially at least, “perfectly prepared to keep those ghosts wholly imaginary”), she began to read accounts written by members of a late-Victorian ghost-hunting expedition, and found that she was more interested in the dynamic that existed between the investigators than in the houses they were studying. As she put it, “They thought they were being terribly scientific and proving all sorts of things, and yet the story that kept coming through their dry reports was not at all the story of a haunted house, it was the story of several earnest, I believe misguided, certainly determined people, with their differing motivations and backgrounds. I found it so exciting that I wanted more than anything to set up my own haunted house, and put my own people in it, and see what I could make happen.”
The basic premise is therefore deceptively simple. Dr John Montague, an academic determined to scientifically prove the existence of ghosts, rents a reputedly haunted mansion in rural New England, and invites several individuals with psychic abilities to spend the summer there with him. (He believes that such people are more receptive to the supernatural.) Only two of his contacts write back: Theodora (who goes by “Theo” – no last name), a witty, glamorous and sexually ambiguous telepath, and her apparent opposite, a painfully repressed young woman named Eleanor Vance, who may have demonstrated telekinetic abilities as a youngster. Luke Sanderson, the charming but dissolute heir to Hill House, comes along as a family representative.
The house is maintained by taciturn local couple Mr and Mrs Dudley, whose refusal to remain after dark suggests that they have an entirely sensible fear of the place. Although the visitors quickly bond – and are soon, ominously, playfully referring to themselves as a “family” – it rapidly becomes clear that Hill House is exerting a dangerous influence upon Eleanor. Her initial, horrified reaction to the house was also her most accurate: “Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.”
Hill House was well-received by contemporary readers, and soon adapted for the screen. Robert Wise’s 1963 black-and-white film version, The
Haunting, is considered a classic in its own right, not least because it so brilliantly stages many of the novel’s most chilling episodes, including the spine-tingling moment when Eleanor (Julie Harris), having been terrified by noises in the middle of the night, suddenly realises that the hand she has grasped for comfort is not that of her new friend Theo (Claire Bloom), but someone – or something – else.
The 1999 remake was a bloated, nonsensical CGI-heavy fiasco. Thankfully, although it departs even more substantially than that version from Jackson’s core premise, the Netflix series inspired by the novel intelligently incorporates many of her most notable themes and scenarios – including a clever variation on the “Whose hand was I holding?” scene. The fact that the series focuses upon five grown-up siblings devastated by the death of their mother is lent additional poignancy by the fact that Jackson herself died suddenly at the age of 49, when her youngest child was only 13.
The show marks the latest highpoint in a remarkable resurgence of popular interest in Jackson. She has a higher public profile now than any time since her death in August 1965. Her back catalogue has been republished by Penguin under the Modern Classics imprint. Ruth Franklin’s award-winning 2016 biography,
Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, helped bring renewed critical attention to her life and work. A long-awaited movie adaptation of We
Have Always Lived in the Castle, filmed in Ireland, will soon be released. Several other film, TV and theatre adaptations are in the works. Furthermore, in a development that would probably have filled the notoriously camera-shy author with horror, Elisabeth Moss is set to play Jackson in a film based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014 thriller Shirley.
The Jacksonaissance is long overdue and well deserved, not least because she created what is still the most horrifying haunted house ever committed to the page – a manipulative, sentient and deceptively motherly monster that ruthlessly exploits the vulnerabilities of those foolish enough to step over its threshold. As Jackson puts it: “It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed.” Victims may come and go, but this house always wins.
Above: Julian Hilliard inNetflix’s The Haunting of Hill House. Left: Claire Bloom and Julie Harris in The Haunting, Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of Hill House. Right: Shirley Jackson.