‘No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality…’
I’ve never taken to horror fiction like I did horror movies. Despite devouring every shitty scary film I could get my grubby hands on from being about thirteen onward, my experience with horror literature pretty much begins and ends with James Herbert and Stephen King (via Point Horror and the Goosebumps series). I’ve always found that horror lends itself to a more visual format and when written down it tends to have a hint of the Garth Marenghi’s about it. I recently read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle and it totally blew me away, whether it should be classed as horror is an issue as murky as Jackson’s torrid personal life but there is no doubting the book’s visceral power. The Haunting of Hill House preceded We Have Always Lived in the Castle and in many ways, it is better.
Dr. John Montague is a driven and respected supernatural investigator. Hill House is an eighty-year-old mansion that that lies benevolently in the hills of an unnamed, English village. Montague recruits the free-spirited Theodora and the shy and socially awkward Eleanor Vance to join Luke Sanderson, the heir to the Hill House throne and all round suave mother fucker. The reason for this recruitment is only vaguely explained with Eleanor and Theodora having a sparse back story that only becomes slightly less opaque as the novel progresses. This lack of respect for character motive is indicative of the book as a whole with the lack of detail and constant allusions becoming as unknowable and infuriating as Hill House itself.
At times, reading Hill House is akin to that feeling that there is something just out of your eye line, always felt but never revealed. This creates an unnerving aura, one that Jackson has clearly worked hard to cultivate. Horror shouldn’t just be sensationalist and vomit inducing, at its best, it should instil a rising sense of dread that is as unexplainable as it is nerve wracking.
In terms of influence, every single haunted house story that came after Hill House owes a debt to its creeping sense of menace and slow slip into insanity. Without Jackson’s seminal novel we wouldn’t have The Woman in Black, The Shining, House of Leaves or countless other works that have become lauded across both cinema and literature.
The Haunting of Hill House did something that no book has done since I was a child. It scared me. Actually, properly scared me. As in, jumping at shadows, persistent nightmares, idle day dreams, under the skin, shiver down the spine, creaking of floorboards, closet door hanging ajar, scared me.
Shirley Jackson turned to drink and drugs to try and escape from her own metaphorical haunted house but her demons caught up with her at the end. Her only consolation, if you would consider Hill House such a thing, is that Jackson’s pain and suffering conspired to produce one of the greatest horror novels ever written.