First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.
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About the Author
Laura Miller (Introduction), a journalist and critic living in New York, is books and culture columnist for Slate. She is a co-founder of Salon.com, where she worked for twenty years. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, the Guardian, and the New York Times Book Review, where she wrote the “Last Word.” She is the author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia and editor of The Salon.com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors.
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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
Copyright renewed Laurence Hyman, Barry Hyman, Sarah Webster, and Joanne Schnurer, 1987
Introduction copright © Laura Miller, 2006
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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?”
The psychological ghost story is as much about the puzzle of identity as it is about madness. The governess in The Turn of the Screw yearns to be a heroine, to do something brave and noble, and to attract the attention of the dashing employer whose sole directive is that she never, ever bother him. She wants to be someone else. Without the mission of protecting her two young charges from mortal danger, she’s merely a young woman squandering her youth in the middle of nowhere, taking care of children who will only grow up to leave her behind. Is the house she presides over haunted by the ghost of brutish Peter Quint and his lover, her predecessor, the sexually degraded Miss Jessel? Or is it haunted by some half-formed, half-desired alternate version of the nameless governess herself? Eleanor may be the target of the haunting of Hill House, or she may be the one doing the haunting. After all, Dr. Montague invited her to participate in the project because of a poltergeist incident during her childhood.
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.”
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