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 èguǐ, 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 grounds.
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 Matheson’s Hell House and Mark Z. Danielewski’s 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 The Haunting, 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 Screw. 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 occult.
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.
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 survive—we 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. T.G.