Sunday, January 6, 2013

Review: "The Haunting of Hill House" by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson is one of those secret-famous authors. Say her name and you're likely to get back a lot of blank stares, but say the title of her work or an adaptation of her work and watch their eyes light up. "That's who wrote it? What was her name again?"

Most schoolchildren in America are familiar with her short story, "The Lottery," about a small town that ritualistically murders an individual every year to ensure good harvest and good fortune. It's such a classic that you might know it by heart without remembering the first time you read it or saw it referenced in other TV shows and movies. "The Simpsons" referenced it in their golden years ("Dog of Death," season 3, episode 19), and even "South Park" took a stab at it, no pun intended because the townsfolk use rocks ("Britney's New Look," season 12, episode 2).

The subject of today's post, Jackson's 1959 novella "The Haunting of Hill House," has twice been adapted as a movie called "The Haunting." The first movie from 1963 is supposed to be pretty good, a classic of horror cinema, which is why I haven't watched it. I'm a pansy. I saw the 1999 remake on TV one night, but only because it's too shitty to be scary, even for me. I don't recommend it, though I do recommend this Nostalgia Critic video review that compares the two versions.

As I mentioned, I'm a pansy when it comes to horror. I actually read "The Haunting of Hill House" in the day time because I was too afraid to read it at night. Was my fear justified? Yes, but maybe not in the way Jackson intended. Horror and ghost stories depend a great deal on atmosphere, and Jackson certainly knows how to create that brooding sense of danger and fear. But for me, the book was a bit defeated by her own premise, which is that the characters are gathering in the big scary haunted house specifically to study and observe the phenom of a haunting. Some of my fear immediately goes out the window when the characters know that they're being haunted and talk openly about their impressions and observations of the ghosts' activity.

I think Jackson was trying to show how the power of ghosts and fear can hold up even under scientific scrutiny, and while it's an original premise that raises a lot of interesting questions about the concepts and conceits of the ghost story genre, it doesn't necessarily make this ghost story any scarier. The scariest parts of this book are the bits that veer away from the scientific and dive right in to the cliche: the whispers of the townsfolk and caretakers, the knockings and voices in the night, the disorienting dimensions of the house itself.

Where "The Haunting of Hill House" really shines is the character development. Jackson is great at creating dialog that feels both natural and revealing, if a bit archaic to modern readers, given the time it was written. She's a master of the "show-don't-tell" technique (which is why teachers love her work so much), and she gives these stock characters depth and dimension, making them fully realized individuals instead of just archetypes. Two characters that bumble in toward the end of the book--the pushy psychic and the Teddy Roosevelt-esque headmaster--are referred to in the narration only by their names, but their dialog is so wonderfully descriptive and personalized that I knew as much about them after three pages than I knew about the other four characters after spending an entire book with them. All writers aspire to that level of skill, but few will ever reach the heights that Jackson did.

Maybe that's why more ordinary readers don't know Jackson by name. She's a great example of a writer's writer, known to those who write and those who study and teach writing, to the point that you might read something of hers and think it feels every familiar, because so many bigger, more famous authors are inspired by her *coughStephenKing*. I consider her one of the Great American Writers and highly encourage you to check out her oeuvre, which is widely available at your local library and online for free in my cases.

Final Grade: B+. It gets a few points deducted because it scared me. Recommended for those who like horror or ghost stories, meta works that skew the genre, and writers who could learn a thing or two from a hidden gem of American literature.

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