'Textbook terror': How The Haunting of Hill House rewrote horror's rules

Authors from Joe Hill to Andrew Michael Hurley consider why this 1959 novel, poised for a Netflix adaptation, holds such enduring power to chill

As Shirley Jackson told it, the inspiration for The Haunting of Hill House came after she read about a group of 19th-century psychic researchers who moved into a supposedly haunted house in order to study it. “They thought that they were being terribly scientific and proving all kinds of things,” she said, “and yet the story that kept coming through their dry reports was not at all the story of a haunted house, it was the story of several earnest, I believe misguided, certainly determined people, with their differing motivations and backgrounds.”

Published in 1959, Jackson’s resulting novel has defined the haunted house story ever since. Stephen King, in his history of the horror genre, Danse Macabre, said The Haunting of Hill House is – along with Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw – one of “the only two great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years”, while Ramsey Campbell called it “the greatest of all haunted house novels, and arguably the greatest novel of the supernatural”.

“I know of no other writer in the field who conveys paranoia and spectral dread with more delicacy than she. Who else could terrify with the sight of a picnic on a lawn?” he said. “Like the best of Lovecraft and Machen, her work is a peak we lesser writers try to climb.”

Jackson has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years: long beloved by writers from King to Neil Gaiman, she was nonetheless out of print in the UK until 2009. Hill House has influenced writers including Andrew Michael Hurley, the Costa award-winning author of The Loney, bestselling horror novelist Sarah Lotz, Campbell (in Nazareth Hill), King (in The Shining) and Richard Matheson (in Hell House). Already adapted twice for film, in the acclaimed 1963 Robert Wise version and a critically derided 1999 version, Hill House is about to be put on screen yet again, this time by Netflix as a 10-part “modern reimagining” of Jackson’s genre-defining tale.

Shirley Jackson in 1951.
‘Who else could terrify with the sight of a picnic on a lawn’ … Shirley Jackson in 1951. Photograph: AP

Jackson’s story follows occult scholar Dr John Montague as he decides to explore the phenomenon of the purportedly haunted house (“a place of contained ill will”). One of his three recruits for the project is Eleanor Vance, an immensely lonely woman who has spent her life caring for her loathed mother. Montague and his assistants assemble at Hill House, where everything feels slightly wrong – “somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair”. Strange noises, unexplained events and writing on the walls begin to appear, with Eleanor in particular drawn deep into the house’s embrace.

Horror writers today hold Hill House up as a shining example of the genre. Joe Hill – King’s son – calls it “a foundational document, the textbook on what a good ghost story can be”; while Paul Tremblay, whose novel A Head Full of Ghosts draws deeply from Jackson, calls it “the haunted house novel. All others stand in its shadow.”

He is watching with more than a little trepidation to find out what Netflix will make of it: “Frankly, I don’t think any adaptation (even the Wise film, as good as it is) will ever achieve the heights of the novel,” he says. “With that in mind, it might be a wise decision for the television series to go for its ‘modern reimagining’ rather than attempting another faithful adaptation. We’ll see.”

Grady Hendrix, novelist and author of the history of horror writing Paperbacks from Hell, says the book made such an impact because it appeared, in 1959, when horror was in a lull.

“Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, published in 1938, was the last ‘respectable’ horror novel, or maybe a case could be made for 1954’s The Bad Seed,” he says. When Hill House appeared, the bestselling books of the day were “earnest epics” such as Doctor Zhivago, with horror fiction “mostly relegated to the pulps”.

Jackson was the first author to understand that “houses aren’t haunted – people are”, says Hill. “All the most terrible spectres are already there inside your head, just waiting for the cellar door of the subconscious to spring open so they can get out, sink their icy claws into you,” he says. “In the story, the house toys with the minds of our heroes just like the cat with the mouse: with a fascinated, joyful cruelty. Nothing is more terrifying than being betrayed by your own senses and psyche.”

Hurley says: “The menace of the house is subtle and insidious and when it does appear, you realise that it was there from the start. Hill House is far more than just a ‘haunted house’ story. Quite what it is, or what it means, is as changeable as the house itself.”

For Lotz, it is the ambiguity that makes Hill House stand out. “Is Eleanor the victim, is she behind the haunting, or is it all in her own mind?” she says. “To me, the best haunted house narratives are never just about the dead – they’re about the living and the psychological. In Hill House, the real horror comes from the tragedy that Eleanor thinks she is escaping her stultifying family situation, but can’t escape her own mind.”

It is Hendrix, though, who puts his finger on the real terror at the heart of Hill House: loneliness. This was taken directly from Jackson’s life. The author felt neglected by her husband and, as she started writing Hill House, wrote him a letter that ended: “You once wrote me a letter … telling me that I would never be lonely again. I think that was the first, the most dreadful, lie you ever told me.” Her husband, Hendrix says, refused to read the manuscript of Hill House.

Jackson herself felt the book’s pivotal line was when Eleanor thinks she’s holding her friend Theo’s hand in their dark bedroom, then discovers he is on the other side of the room. “Whose hand was I holding?” she asks, in horror.

Hendrix says: “For a woman constantly criticised by her mother, alienated by her husband, and isolated by her neighbours, the worst answer of all is: ‘No one’s.’”

• The Haunting of Hill House starts on Netflix in the UK on 12 October.

Contributor

Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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