Haunted Houses to Visit: A Reading List for Halloween

71-xokziKRLStephen King said in Danse Macabre, his 1981 survey of horror fiction, that The Turn of the Screw (Henry James; 1898) and The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson; 1959) were the only two “great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years.” If you have already read those two books, though, and noted how the second is a direct descendant of the first, where should you venture next in the haunted house genre?

You could turn to the descendants of Hill House. The similarity of the title of Richard Matheson’s Hell House (1971) is no coincidence. The general plot–four psychic researchers investigate a haunted house–is essentially the same. The ambiguity of Jackson’s novel dissatisfied Matheson, and Hell House is his response. Stephen King’s own Carrie White (Carrie; 1974) is another descendant. Carrie’s childhood, like Eleanor’s, featured an unexplained shower of stones, and she also had a troubled relationship with her mother (to say the least). While there is no haunted house in that story, Carrie’s home is creepy enough to satisfy on that score. It’s no surprise that Hill House’s influence on King was strong, considering his high esteem of the novel. It’s not a stretch to claim that Hill House laid the foundations for both of the terrifying buildings in Carrie’s follow-ups: the Marsten House in ‘Salem’s Lot (1975) and the infamous Overlook Hotel in The Shining (1977). The Shining, for my money, wins the “what’s the scariest book ever written” parlor game, but Hill House follows at a close second.

watersMoving a little later in time, we have plenty of haunted houses to choose from, all owing something to Jackson, certainly, but still offering a unique perspective to the genre. The House Next Door (Anne Rivers Siddons; 1978) features a modern, newly built haunted house with an equally ambiguous source of the haunting. The Woman in Black  (Susan Hill; 1983) is a short novel as imprecisely placed in time as Hill House is in location. It introduces Eel Marsh House, a brooding gothic mansion on the edge of a treacherous moor. The house in The Little Stranger (Sarah Waters; 2009)  is a dilapidated mansion that represents the decline of the British upper class after World War II, with yet another ambiguous haunting placing it squarely in line with its precedents.

515z5W8kjtLLeading us to others, as yet unread: The Red Tree (Caitlin R. Kiernan; 2009); The Unseen (Alexandra Sokoloff; 2009); White Is for Witching (Helen Oyeyemi; 2009)–2009 was a very good year for haunted houses, it seems. We might expect to become bored with the premise after all this, but betrayal by the structures we have built to shelter and protect us continues to fascinate and terrify us. Rooms (Lauren Oliver; 2014) is a recent haunted house read, which delves into the minds of the ghosts who have merged with the rundown old house they inhabit. The gloomy, gothic haunted house might be an old chestnut, but it keeps on exciting our imaginations.

Happy Halloween!

The Haunting of Hill House: A Love Story?

Books discussed in this essay: The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson; 1959); We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Jackson; 1962); The Sundial (Jackson; 1958). Slight spoilers for Hill House.

Journeys end in lovers meeting.

51eCg0PJc6L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_This line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night plays a constant refrain in the mind of Eleanor, the protagonist of Shirley Jackson’s ghost story masterpiece, The Haunting of Hill House. The thought is first prompted not by meeting one of her fellow haunted-house researchers, but by seeing Hill House itself. A lot of the horror of Hill House stems from how the house seduces Eleanor into falling in love with it, by writing her name on the wall, caressing her, whispering to her, even–in one of the most memorable and scariest scenes–holding her hand in the dark.

Hill House belongs to me.

Shirley Jackson seems to have been obsessed with houses, so much so that she featured memorable mansions in her three best-known novels: The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Sundial. The houses are primary characters in each book, with a distinct personality and perhaps even desires–but nowhere so overtly as in The Haunting of Hill House.

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.

haunting2_large
Hill House as imagined in the film The Haunting.

Two stories about Jackson’s research for Hill House may be too good to be true. When she was searching for houses to serve as the model for Hill House, she found a photo of a suitably haunted-looking one in a magazine article. Since this house was located in California, Jackson asked her mother, who lived there, to find out more about it. The house turned out to have been built by Jackson’s own great-great-grandfather, a San Francisco architect.

Within, its 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.

Also, Jackson and her husband went to New York for a weekend away and passed a house that so terrified Jackson, she couldn’t enjoy herself. She insisted on returning at night–“in the night, in the dark,” as Mrs. Dudley would say–so that she wouldn’t have to see the house again. Later, she asked a friend to find out more about the house and discovered that nine people had died there in a fire, leaving basically only a shell of a house behind, which was what Jackson saw.

The house was vile. She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.

ED-AK419_jackso_DV_20091028223410Whether these stories were true or embellished by Jackson, the writer, I don’t know, nor do I care much. They lend a mystique to the legend of Hill House, now generally considered one of the best–if not the best–haunted house stories ever written. Perhaps Hill House itself exists somewhere–Jackson never identifies its location in the novel–and we might stumble upon it by accident sometime. If we do see it, will it inspire love or fear? Or that most delicious of emotions, a mixture of both?

O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O stay and hear! your true-love’s coming
That can sing both high and low;
Trip no further, pretty sweeting,
Journeys end in lovers’ meeting—
Every wise man’s son doth know.

What is love? ’tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty,—
Then come kiss me, Sweet-and-twenty,
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

–Feste, Twelfth Night