Review by Jeremy Billingsley
Dissecting the craft of the quintessential horror novel.
In 1959, literary icon Shirley Jackson wrote the quintessential haunted house story. Already famous for her short story, “The Lottery,” Jackson wrote The Haunting of Hill House in 1959, widely regarded as one of the best ghost stories ever written.
“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.”
This is how the novel starts, and a more perfect beginning I can’t imagine. Three complex compound sentences that make up this first paragraph set the mood and describe for the reader the setting. The first sentence draws us in. Why is this house not sane? The second established its immortality. The third juxtaposed its solidarity against its vulnerability.
What is beautiful about this work is that Jackson doesn’t spend time indulging in the morbid history of Hill House. She sets the stage and creates the characters and draws us in to experience the haunting. Sure, we know the secular history of the house, but we don’t get a descriptor of the ghosts that might haunt it. What we get is an unsettled house and an unsettled protagonist who needs a place to belong.
The story is framed around Elenore Vance–“Nell”–though, told in the third person, every scene is oriented around her. The narrator is not omniscient, but is limited through her eyes. Occasionally, early as the characters are introduced, are we the reader exposed to the viewpoints of the others, and so we get their motivations for coming to the house, but afterward it is singularly Nell.
Almost every scene is oriented around her, until Jackson needs to orient the scene around another character so as to show Nell as unreliable. The end result is a psychological study on the mind of one woman needing to belong. We the reader are left to question if the horror was ever real. That Doctor Montague and Theo and Luke Sanderson seem to respond to it is little consultation when we understand that the scenes in which they are affected are seen through Nell’s eyes.
And always, lurking in the background, the house as an unnamed character, with its shadows and strange sounds, hovers over Nell’s shoulder and continuously beckons to her. This strange labyrinthine setting is calling her home.
It seems as though the Netflix show jumped off from this point and ran with it. It used a lot of catchphrases and vocab from the novel, and it captured the essence of the characters. As realistic as the characters are in the book, they are full developed in the show.
Would I recommend one over the other? Of course not. You should both read the book and watch the various iterations. Jacksons’ work holds up no matter the media.