The Haunting of Hill House
The Haunting of Hill House began scaring years off its readers' lives in 1959 and hasn't stopped since.
Now, Shirley Jackson didn't invent the Gothic haunted house. Not even close. That honor usually goes to Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story, from way back in 1765. Horace's trademark setting gave the genre its name and made generations of writers and readers addicted to stories of decaying medieval castles, hidden passages behind bookcases, and mysteries surrounding ancient curses.
Other writers taking up the Gothic tradition before Jackson include a pantheon of literary awesomeness: try Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, and William Faulkner on for size. Heck, even Scooby-Doo beat Jackson to the punch by blending one part Gothic tale with one part the Hardy Brothers mystery and adding a dash of cartoony goodness.
So, if Shirley Jackson was following a super long tradition of Gothic literature lovers, then why does her name rank so highly on any list of horror fiction? What's all the hubbub, bub? Simply put: Jackson may not have got there first, but once she did get there, she rocked the genre with the best of them.
The Haunting of Hill House tells the chilling tale of socially repressed Eleanor Vance, who heads to Hill House to partake in an experiment involving paranormal activities. But the horrors of Hill House don't come in the form of ghosts or vampires or werewolves. Instead, Eleanor and company must contend with the House itself—and with their haunted histories—if they are to survive their encounter with the malevolent mansion.
This novel's success can be measured by how many students, academics, horror enthusiasts, and general readers hold it and its author in such high esteem. It was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1960—though it lost to Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus. One critic said that Jackson's ability to "[detect] horror in the everyday" and her "rapier-sharp prose" made her a 20th century Ambrose Bierce (source). And famed author Stephen King called Hill House one of the two great horror novels of the past one hundred years (source).
After its release, the novel was adapted into a movie by famed director Robert Wise. It was released in 1963 and called simply The Haunting (maybe they couldn't afford the print on the last three words?). Today, it is considered one of the best horror movies of all time, and then some. The film was remade in 1999 by Jan de Bont. While the 1999 version has that new movie smell, the 1963 version remains the definitive adaptation of Jackson's work.
Sadly, Jackson would die a mere six years after the release of Hill House, at the young age of 48. She gave the world only one more novel in that time, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. And though her ghost isn't known to haunt any houses, her pages have haunted bookshelves for decades—and if you're lucky, dear Shmooper, she will soon haunt your own.
Why Should I Care?
Have you ever felt lonely, out of place, or unsure what you should do next? Have you ever had a hard time connecting with the people around you? Ever wanted something new and exciting to shake you out of the humdrum of the everyday? Have you liked someone who didn't like you in that way? Oh, and here's a big one: does your family not quite get you? If you answered yes to any of those questions—and, if you're human, chances are you did—then The Haunting of Hill House is a book you should care about.
On the surface, this novel reads like typical fare. Four people spend a week in a house where unexplainable happenings run amok. Unseen forces knock on doors, enigmatic messages are written on walls in blood, and ghostly voices sing haunting renditions of children's songs. If you're here for another good scare, Hill House won't disappoint.
But the real reason you should care about this novel is the characters. Eleanor and company are portrayed as true flesh-and-blood people, and the fears they encounter in Hill House are the intimate fears we all deal with at some point in our lives: fear of loneliness, fear of love, fear of ourselves, fear of the unknown, and so on. The novel doesn't provide easy answers to calm these fears, so don't ask. But if you want a mature and thought-provoking exploration of everyday as well as supernatural horrors, then you are in for some engaging, if sleepless, nights.