Table of Contents
The Haunting of Hill House
THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE
SHIRLEY JACKSON was born in San Francisco in 1916. She first received wide critical acclaim for her short story “The Lottery,” which was published in 1949. Her novels—which include The Sundial, The Bird’s Nest, Hangsaman, The Road through the Wall, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Penguin), in addition to The Haunting of Hill House (Penguin)—are characterized by her use of realistic settings for tales that often involve elements of horror and the occult. Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages are her two works of nonfiction. Come Along With Me (Penguin) is a collection of stories, lectures, and part of the novel she was working on when she died in 1965.
LAURA MILLER is a journalist and critic living in New York. She is a cofounder of Salon.com, where she is currently a staff writer, and a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Los Angeles Times, Time magazine, and other publications. She is the editor of The Salon.com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors (Penguin, 2000).
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First published in the United States of America by The Viking Press 1959
Published in Penguin Books 1984
This edition with an introduction by Laura Miller published 2006
Copyright © Shirley Jackson, 1959
Copyright renewed Laurence Hyman, Barry Hyman, Sarah Webster, and Joanne Schnurer, 1987
Introduction copright © Laura Miller, 2006
All rights reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
eISBN : 978-1-101-53064-1
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For Leonard Brown
Like all good ghost stories, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House sets a trap for its protagonist. In the classic version of the form, as established by the British writer M. R. James, the hero is a gentleman of mildly investigatory bent: a scholar, a collector, or an antiquarian. What lures him into the vicinity of the ghost is often intellectual curiosity and, occasionally, greed; what attracts the ghost’s wrath or malevolence is the hero’s tendency to meddle, to open the sealed room, to root around for treasure, to pocket a souvenir. The hero (“victim” might be a better word) typically hasn’t got much personality beyond his intrusiveness. He’s just someone inclined to put himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and to rue the consequences.
What makes The Haunting of Hill House a great ghost story is that Jackson also sets a trap for her readers. Eleanor Vance, the young woman around whom the uncanny events of the novel constellate, is no mere snoop. She is drawn into this adventure, the narrator implies, by the house itself, and the terrible things that happen there emerge from and express her inner life. Eleanor is a genuine literary character rather than a device of the narrative. She is a complicated and distinctive individual, peculiar even, although not so peculiar that she fails to engage the reader’s sympathy. We experience the novel from within Eleanor’s consciousness, and however unreliable we know her to be, we are wedded to her. When the house infiltrates her psyche, the reader, so thoroughly bound up in her, is also invaded. When the ground pitches and ripples beneath her feet, we are unsteadied, too. When Eleanor is snared, so are we. Most ghost stories offer a cozy armchair chill or two, but The Haunting of Hill House exudes a lingering, clammy dread.
The true antecedents of The Haunting of Hill House are not the traditional English ghost stories of M. R. James or Sheridan LeFanu, or even the gothic fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, but the ghostly tales of Henry James. The Turn of the Screw, another short novel about a lonely, imaginative young woman in a big isolated house, is a probable influence, and so, perhaps, is “The Jolly Corner,” the story of a middle-aged aesthete who roams the empty rooms of his childhood home, haunted by the specter of the man he would have been if he had lived his life differently. The ghost story is a small genre to begin with, but its subgenre, the psychological ghost story, the category to which The Haunting of Hill House and Henry James’s tales belong, is tinier still. The literary effect we call horror turns on the dissolution of boundaries, between the living and the dead, of course, but also, at the crudest level, between the outside of the body and everything that ought to stay inside. In the psychological ghost story, the dissolving boundary is the one between the mind and the exterior world. During the third major manifestation at Hill House, as Eleanor’s resistance begins to buckle, she thinks, “how can these others hear the noise when it is coming from inside my head?”
In the 1930s, the critic Edmund Wilson advanced the theory that the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw did not exist at all, that they were manifestations of the governess’s neuroses, arising from sexual frustration. The
manifestations in The Haunting of Hill House are more palpable; as Dr. Montague points out, Eleanor is not the only one who hears and sees them. But they could just possibly be caused by her poltergeist—a primitive, spiteful, violent, unthinking force—rather than by the house itself. It should be said that both James and Jackson gave every indication that they considered the ghosts in their short novels to be real within the fictional world that their books describe. Jackson, who had a lifelong interest in the occult, who dabbled in spells and liked to tell reporters that she was a witch, professed to believe in ghosts. But both of these writers were too preoccupied with the notion that people are attended by multiple, imaginary versions of themselves to be unaware of the nonsupernatural implications of their ghost stories.
Shirley Jackson often wrote about solitary, mousy young women. In addition to Eleanor Vance, who spends eleven years caring for her querulous invalid mother, Jackson’s protagonists include a wallflower college freshman who invents an imaginary female friend (in the 1951 novel, Hangsaman) and a young woman who suffers from multiple personality disorder and blames herself for her mother’s death (in the 1954 novel The Bird’s Nest). Jackson’s attraction to stories that pair fragile, lonely girls with more daring alter egos continued after The Haunting of Hill House. In her last novel and masterpiece, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), two reclusive and unstable sisters hole up in the family mansion after the rest of their relatives are wiped out by a mysterious incident involving a poisoned sugar bowl.
It may come as a surprise, then, that although Jackson did love big old houses, she wrote her novels of spooky isolation from the midst of a large, boisterous family. With her husband, the notable critic and academic Stanley Edgar Hyman, Jackson presided over a household that included four children, an indeterminate number of cats, and an endless rotation of guests and visitors, including several great mid-century American literary figures. At times, their life resembled a continuous party, fueled, to the detriment of their health, by liberal amounts of alcohol, rich food, and cigarettes. Their friends included Ralph Ellison, Howard Nemerov, and Bernard Malamud, but Jackson and Hyman held their own. “I have always thought of them as giants,” one friend told Judy Oppenheimer, Jackson’s biographer. “Not physically. They just had more life than most people do.” It was an opinion Nemerov seconded: “You got impressions of immense personal power from both of them . . . Enormous confidence.”
As a writer, Jackson developed a lucrative sideline producing witty autobiographical sketches of her endearingly chaotic family life for women’s magazines. The pieces, collected in two popular volumes, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, were how some of her readers knew her best. The contrast between these essentially sunny vignettes and Jackson’s much darker fiction—especially the short story “The Lottery,” which caused a sensation when it was published in The New Yorker in 1948 and has been widely anthologized, to the terror of countless schoolchildren since—must have baffled those fans who came to her work from the pages of Good Housekeeping. Shirley Jackson’s two authorial personas were equally authentic; she prided herself as much on her generous mothering and culinary skills as on her cool literary examinations of human wickedness. Still, the difficulty of integrating these contradictory selves surely contributed to the way the women in her novels tend to come in pairs.
It’s striking, for example, that a writer who depicted the sisterly bond with such passion had no sister of her own. Jackson was born, in 1916, to handsome middle-class parents in San Francisco and raised with her younger brother in one of the city’s affluent suburbs. To her elegant, conventional mother, Jackson—ungainly, eccentric, brilliant, and plain—was a perennial vexation. The relationship would torment Jackson, too, for the rest of her life. She would alternate between defying her parents (by marrying a Jew, by refusing to live up to her mother’s standards of grooming, by becoming fat) and trying to outdo them. In Jackson’s letters home, Oppenheimer detects a tireless campaign to camouflage stresses and crises while presenting Jackson’s family life as more warm and loving than the one her mother provided. The demanding, cold, and critical mothers who figure in Jackson’s fiction, including Eleanor’s own dead-but-not-gone parent, owe much to Geraldine Jackson.
Jackson’s parents moved the family east, to Rochester, New York, when Shirley was sixteen. After a disastrous stint at the nearby University of Rochester, she finally began to establish her independence at Syracuse University. Hyman, one of the student body’s Young Turks, read a story Jackson published in the college newspaper and announced that he was going to marry the author. It was entirely in character that two years later that’s exactly what he did. After a few unsatisfactory years in New York City apartments, the couple and their two oldest children moved to North Bennington, Vermont, where Hyman, who had been working as a staff writer for The New Yorker, got a job teaching at Bennington College. Most of the faculty’s families lived in on-campus housing, but Jackson insisted on living in town.
It was a choice that perpetuated her outsider status. Jackson didn’t want to be subsumed into the college as a faculty wife, but she didn’t fit into old rural New England either. Xenophobic, tight-lipped, and possibly inbred Yankee country folk begin to make appearances in her fiction at this point. A small town in Vermont is the setting for “The Lottery,” and the town square where the locals gather to ritually stone to death one of their citizens was based on the square in North Bennington. Jackson told one friend the story was about anti-Semitism, a prejudice she felt keenly in North Bennington, but it’s likely that she would have been excluded even if her husband had been a WASP. North Bennington was the kind of place where you were considered a newcomer unless your grandfather had been born there.
The houses were another matter. In Life Among the Savages, Jackson combined into one the family’s two beloved houses (a rental and later a purchase) in North Bennington. She described this slightly phantasmagorical composite home as “old, noisy and full,” a marked contrast to Hill House, with its empty halls and preternatural silence (most of the time, at least). But Jackson also saw her houses as having wills of their own, including insistent ideas about how their rooms should be arranged. “After a few vain attempts at imposing our own angular order on things,” she wrote, “with a consequent out-of-jointness and shrieking disharmony that set our teeth on edge, we gave in to the old furniture and let things settle where they would.” Her daughter, she said, claimed to hear “a far away voice in the house that sang to her at night,” and there was a “door to an attic that preferred to stay latched and would latch itself no matter who was inside,” as well as “another door which hung by custom slightly ajar, although it would close goodhumoredly for a time when some special reason required it.”
The good humor of the house in Life Among the Savages and the malevolence of Hill House are phenomena of the same order, despite the difference in tenor. The big, old, semi-personified manse is a fixture of gothic literature, as Jackson, who boned up on ghost stories in preparation for writing The Haunting of Hill House, well knew. But she had always had a fascination with the various ways people and the spaces they occupy influence each other; of the divided heroine of The Bird’s Nest, she wrote, “It is not proven that Elizabeth’s personal equilibrium was set off balance by the set of the office floor, nor could it be proven that it was Elizabeth who pushed the building off its foundations, but it is undeniable that they began to slip at about the same time.” The gothic house can stand for any number of things, depending on the interpretative inclination of the observer: sexuality, the female body, the family, the psyche. All of those understandings, with the exception of sex—a topic Jackson avoided—apply to Hill House.
Jackson’s ghost story, published in 1959, was a hit; it became a bestseller, the critics praised it, and the movie rights sold for a goodly sum. The incipient madness of Eleanor Vance seemed to affect her creator, though—or perhaps it was the other way around. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is narrated by
a girl who is even more disturbed; at one point, she sets the house on fire to scare off her sister’s suitor. Jackson, a mercurial personality at best and aggravated by the prescription amphetamines she took like aspirin, experienced her own psychic disintegration not long after finishing that final novel, a breakdown triggered when one of her husband’s many affairs with Bennington students took an uncharacteristically serious turn. Eventually, Jackson pulled herself together with the help of a psychiatrist, but the burden of so many years worth of bad habits proved to be harder to conquer. She died in her sleep, of cardiac arrest, at age forty-eight.
The Haunting of Hill House, after “The Lottery,” is the work most often associated with Jackson, but she is no longer widely read. This isn’t necessarily surprising; the successful novelists of one generation often evaporate from the awareness of the next, and it probably didn’t help her reputation in literary circles that she sometimes wrote as a kind of thinking woman’s Erma Bombeck. (Then, even more than now, the domestic realm was viewed as insufficiently serious.) Still, Jackson’s clean, terse style and her tough-mindedness ought to appeal to the kind of readers who keep Patricia Highsmith and James M. Cain in print today. In a way, Jackson was a kindred spirit to the hard-boiled genre novelists of her time. She also depicted the cruel jokes of fate and chance unfolding in an amoral universe. It’s just that instead of doing it with men and guns, she chose to write about mad, lonely girls and big, sinister houses.
The prevailing mood of The Haunting of Hill House, the spell of the book that so many readers have found so hard to shake, is one of physical and psychic claustrophobia. The surrounding hills bear down on the house, the doors and windows refuse to remain open, some rooms are entirely encased in other rooms and, as Theo puts it, the decor was designed by Victorians, who “buried themselves in folds of velvet and tassels and purple plush.” It is a very comfortable place in some ways—the beds are soft, Mrs. Dudley’s cooking is excellent—but its cushioned embrace is suffocating.