The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is the haunted house story. Its influence echoes throughout every form of media, in every story dealing with a haunted location. From The Shining to Silent Hill, entire generations of writers have taken influence from Jackson’s iconic locale, a house that is itself a character as much as a setting. It has been adapted for film twice, with a third coming to Netflix: the 1963 version, The Haunting, is recognised as one of the classics of horror cinema. The 1999 version… is not.
Jackson sets out her stall in the opening paragraph, cited by Stephen King as one of the best in English literature:
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
The story centres around the four characters who dare to stay within the walls of Hill House: a paranormal investigator; a nervous recluse; a bohemian artist; and the duplicitous heir to the property. During their stay, they all experience strange events and begin to uncover the sordid history behind the house, and by the end, the reader is still left wondering how much is real and how much is imaginary.
The Haunting of Hill House is a touchstone of the horror tradition. It understands that nothing is more frightening than whatever the reader can imagine. Jackson’s gorgeous, literary prose gives away nothing: it’s never made explicit whether the events that the characters perceive are real or just products of the strain on their minds. Its genius is that it recognises that no horror on the page can ever match what we create ourselves. It’s a book that forms a psychic echo chamber around the reader, which allows our own worst fears to rattle around inside, becoming larger and more potent with every moment. It is a vital, compelling book that everyone who is interested in reading or writing horror should read.
And as luck would have it, it’s currently on sale for Kindle.