Is the ghost story the oldest literary type? Every culture possesses myths
about interactions between the living and the dead, often in the form of a journey
to the underworld or a visitation from “hungry ghosts” (a literal translation of
a term from the ancient Chinese tradition). I might even claim the spread
of spiritual belief systems is impossible without such tales. The most essential skill
of the shaman, a spiritual figure that appears in every region of the world as far back
as we can probe, is the ability to communicate with beings from beyond, whether
ancestors or tutelary spirits. The accompanying shamanic myths almost always
include some element of the ghost story.
And when we arrive at the age of written
texts, these tales appear in very close to
their modern form—Pliny the Younger
relates a haunted house tale in a two-
thousand-year-old letter that already follows
the familiar formula, complete with ghostly
apparitions late at night, rattling chains and
strange sounds at the door…all leading to
the excavation of a corpse on the property

But something new arrived in the 20th century:
the scientific ghost story. In these narratives,
researchers come to the house equipped for
study. The ghost and haunted residence are
presented as objects of analysis. The goal
isn’t exorcism, but the testing of hypotheses.
Shirley Jackson’s
The Haunting of Hill House
(1959) presents this new type of ghost story in
its purest form, and readers can detect its
influence on many later works, such as Richard
Hell House and Mark Z.
House of Leaves.   

Jackson didn’t invent this kind of story. A quarter of a century before
The Haunting
of Hill House
, H.P. Lovecraft explored various formulas for blending horror and
science fiction. His stories typically suggest some quasi-scientific explanation for
the ghastly incidents related, although he usually only provides the briefest glimpse
behind the veil at the underlying causes. But he was found of inserting researchers
into his narratives. In stories such as “The Shunned House” and “The Dreams in
the Witch House” he places his scientific protagonists in the midst of a haunted
house, and lets analytic objectivity do battle with the dark unknown. But even
earlier, we find this concept of the professional investigator of haunted houses in
Algernon Blackwood’s stories about John Silence, a kind of Sherlock Holmes for
ghostly mysteries. Rather than fearing that an attitude of hardheaded
rationality would destroy the horror of the ghost story, these authors acutely
realized that bringing the haunted house tale into the scientific age allowed
them freedom to invent new ways of scaremongering.

Shirley Jackson took this concept to the next stage, moving beyond the vignettes
and novellas of her predecessors, and delivering a full-scale account of a team of
researchers determined to unlock the secrets of a famous haunted house.  The
work quickly gained acclaim as a classic. “It was Shirley Jackson’s achievement to
write the great modern novel of supernatural horror,” declares critic and novelist
Lisa Tuttle.  
The Haunting of Hill House “is now widely regarded as the greatest
haunted-house story ever written, asserts critic John J. Miller. In his study of
horror fiction,
Danse Macabre, Stephen King singles the novel out for praise, and
cites its opening as one of the finest passages in the English language.  The story’s
popularity has been assisted by two film adaptations, both under the title
, in 1963 and 1999. The first of these films, directed by Robert Wise, has a
cult following in its own right, and has frightened many a moviegoer unaware of the
Shirley Jackson novel.

Yet for all this acclaim,
The Haunting of Hill House is a very peculiar novel, and
violates many of the expectations readers bring to ghost stories. First and foremost,
we never even get a glimpse of a ghost. We occasionally encounter evidence—
noises, writing on the wall, chilling breezes with no apparent source, and doors that
open and close on their own volition. These harbingers of malicious spirits seem to
promise some grand confrontation between the living and the dead at a later stage
of the novel. But it never happens. Instead, readers are forced to deal with that
same uncomfortable ambiguity that Henry James serves up in
The Turn of the
. If H.P. Lovecraft were writing this story, we would get at least a peek at a
dark and deadly demon. If Jack Ketchum were the author, a whole army of ghosts
would arrive, probably swinging machetes and leaving a pile of corpse in their wake.
But Shirley Jackson isn’t that kind of author. She will keep you guessing. And even
if I were a spoilsport and told you exactly what happens at this novel’s conclusion,
you would still need to guess at what it all means.

Our novel starts with a brief description of the four people who have agreed to stay
in Hill House, an abandoned residence with a long history of dark events. The
leader of the group is Dr. John Montague, who plans to write a book about his
research into paranormal incidents, drawing on what he learns during his sojourn
on the property. He is joined by two women, the spinster Eleanor Vance and
bohemian Theodora, both invited to participate because they have had some
previous experience with the supernatural. A fourth member of the team, Luke
Sanderson, is a young man whose family owns Hill House, and is the likely future
heir of the estate. A few days after their arrival, two more researchers join the party:
Montague's wife, a trained spiritualist who believes she can communicate with the
dead, and Arthur Parker, a school headmaster with a longstanding interest in the

At this juncture, Jackson begins to break the rules of the haunted house. Perhaps
the first peculiarity noticed by readers is the cheery mood of the visitors.
Occasionally something happens to give them a brief scare, but they are actually
enjoying their time at Hill House. They play games. They plan a picnic. They savor
their meals and camaraderie. For the first few pages of this “eat, drink and be
merry” conviviality, you are assuming that Jackson is merely lulling us—both
readers and characters—into a false sense of security, and that everyone will soon
get the scare of their lives. But not so! Dr. Montague’s biggest problem proves to be
his bossy wife. Mrs. Montague, for her part, is excited by her talks with the spirits of
Hill House. Arthur acts as if he is on an adventure. Luke flirts with the ladies.
Theodora flirts back. And Eleanor is so thrilled with Hill House that she wants to
stay forever.

What’s wrong with these people? Don’t they realize that they are characters in a
horror novel, and they aren’t likely to get out of these pages alive? Haven’t they
read their Poe and Lovecraft?  But the reader soon starts to grasp what Shirley
Jackson is doing. The real strange occurrences at this haunted house take place in
the characters' heads. All those noises late at night and strange messages on the
wall are secondary to the real focal point of the conflict, which is ultimately
psychological and emotional.

In time, the disjunction between characters and setting grows so pronounced that
we no longer know how to distinguish cause from effect. We are unsure who to
trust, or our own ability to separate empirical reality from mere delusion. Are the
residents of Hill House haunted or doing the haunting themselves?  Are they
victims or perpetrators? As you proceed toward the conclusion of this novel, you
will find yourself forced to revisit and reinterpret the incidents from earlier
chapters, even question their legitimacy as parts of the story, to a degree that is rare
in genre novels, where unreliable narration and postmodern experimentation with
verisimilitude rarely hold sway.

Is there even a ghost in this novel? Perhaps not. But I’m not sure it really matters.
Shirley Jackson shows here that  purely psychological threats can be just as
frightening as goblins and demons, and a lot more plausible to boot. In the final
analysis her sense of horror is acutely clinical, and not just because she enlists
researchers as characters, but because even the scientists here are part of the
pathology. That makes
The Haunting of Hill House a surprisingly prescient novel,
and perhaps the first truly modern ghost tale—it deals with the bad spirits that
exorcists can’t remove and technologists are powerless against. Maybe they even
create them. Does that sound modern enough for you?

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His most recent book, Love Songs:
The Hidden History
, is published by Oxford University Press.
The Haunting of Hill House
by Shirley Jackson
My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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This is my year of horrible reading. I am
reading the classics of horror fiction during the
course of 2016, and each week will write about
a significant work in the genre. You are invited
to join me in my
annus horribilis. During the
course of the year
if we survivewe will
have tackled zombies, serial killers, ghosts,
demons, vampires, and monsters of all
denominations. Check back each week for a
new title...but remember to bring along garlic,
silver bullets and a protective amulet.  
Essay by Ted Gioia
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
To purchase, click on image