SHIRLEY JACKSON'S THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959)
Heralded as a classic gothic horror story and one of the best of Shirley Jackson’s, The House on Haunted Hill is seen as the first example of the haunted house phenomena that pushes itself through the remainder of the 20th century. The notion that a house itself can be an evil entity, was a novel concept at the time although it is hard to imagine now, with so much reference to haunted mansions in popular culture. The book itself has given birth to numerous adaptations, with the most recent released in October 2018, gracing our screens as a series on Netflix.
The book’s focus is on Eleanor Vance a thirty-something woman, who after caring for her sick mother until her death, seizes the invitation of Dr. John Montague. A maverick spiritualist Montague, asks Eleanor along with two others to spend a week in a haunted house. Lured away from their lives the group of guinea pigs includes the young charismatic heir to the property Luke Sanderson, and the flighty bohemian Theodora. Testing the validity of this haunting location, the group is spooked and enthralled by their new abode. As they progress, we are privy to Eleanor’s internal monologue as she navigates her new surroundings and relationships. Her insecurities are laid open to the reader and we become acutely aware that the house is having a profound influence on her, more so than anyone else.
Gradually it is evident that the house behaves in different ways to different people, it is conscious and manipulating. When Dr. Montague’s wife, a self-aware psychic medium arrives with her sidekick, the house is expected to come alive for its new visitors. Instead, it retreats and focuses its energy on the most receptive of its attention, and with Eleanor holding so much disdain for her outside life, she is an easy target. Though Eleanor is afraid, the house is also exciting and is giving her a revived purpose in life.
So, what is it about The House on Haunted Hill that has kept us all on tenterhooks for decades? Just as the grieved mother in The Woman in Black, the house has a never-ending dread surrounding it, standing strong ready to give birth to another ghastly haunting. Jackson has a fantastic ability to ply the reader with unanswered questions, keeping us shuffling around to try and interpret what will be relevant. Nuggets of information are uncovered by the characters, which set off fireworks in your brain. This talent of giving us what we think are clues, setting us off in a direction to make elaborate conclusions, makes a simple story far more complex to the observer. The House on Haunted Hill causes havoc then goes back where it came from, leaving the occupants and reader disturbed whilst the house remains unchanged. The house is far from finished with us and with the public still having a fascination with it, it is here to stay.
(Photography: By Matthew T Rader on Unsplash https://unsplash.com/photos/tA46Ozle6Og)