Shirley Jackson, Weird Fiction, and The Haunted House

Shirley Jackson, born in 1914, was part of a group of writers who worked in the genre of Weird Fiction writers that arose out of the early to mid-20th century.  Weird fiction stories feature elements of science, the supernatural, and the fantastic all mixed together, and  the genre itself arose in the time period before science fiction, horror, and fantasy differentiated themselves  into distinct genres.  Weird Fiction found one of its lasting legacies in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, which initially ran from 1923 to 1954.  Weird Tales published many authors who became known for their Weird Fiction including Shirley Jackson, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Mary Elizabeth Counselman, Ray Bradbury, and Margaret St. Clair.

Shirley Jackson’s Work

Most readers are probably familiar with Jackson’s work through her short story The Lottery.  Often assigned in school reading classes, it is the story of a village and its yearly ritual, with a shocking twist ending.  Shirley Jackson wrote numerous short stories often focusing on the psychological aspects of horror, and a good idea of her work can be gleaned from her short story collection Just an Ordinary Day.  Her final novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, focuses on family relationships, and the persecution of those who are or display traits of “otherness”.

The Haunting of Hill House

Professor John Montague, a paranormal researcher at a University intends to prove that the supernatural is real by investigating the mystery of Hill House.  The house, built by a wealthy industrialist with unsavory reputation named Hugh Cain is reported to be haunted by another of ghosts.  He recruits possible psychic and student Eleanor Vance, bohemian artist Theodora, and Luke Sanderson, the current heir to the Cain estates, hoping that their previous paranormal experiences will trigger a reaction from the house.  Their investigation awakens something malevolent that intends to keep the secrets of Hill House from discovery.

Jackson writes the paranormal events in this book in such a way as to elude them and to leave some question as to if supernatural events are actually occurring, or are the experiences manifestations of the investigators psyches.  The Haunting of Hill House builds a sense of terror, without relying on tons of gore or descriptions of horrific acts.  Additionally, the book features a character who is a lesbian, an uncommon protagonist for a horror novel from the late 1950s.  If you are not sure if you would like horror, The Haunting of Hill House may be a good first taste of the genre.

Film Versions

One key aspect of the horror genre is the transition from the written word to the filmed image.  Horror movies have been a popular staple of the film industry since the days of the silent movie.  This column will try to highlight film versions of the works mentioned when they are available.

The Haunting of Hill House has been filmed twice:

The Haunting of Hill House (1963) Directed by Robert Wise, was an MGM production, filmed in Britain black and white.  It is considered one of the important works in establishing the look and tone of horror film.  Using a new wide angle 30mm lens that produced an anthropomorphic effect The Haunting of Hill House features unusual takes, low angle shot, and other visual techniques to distort the filmed image, and capture an unearthly tone.  The film also keeps the element from the novel of having a lesbian character.  However, where the book made this explicit, the movie had to subtly hint at the character due to the time in which it was made.

The Haunting (1999) Directed by Jan de Bont.  Starring Liam Neeson, Lili Taylor, Catherine Zeta Jones, and Owen Wilson, this version of the book rejects the slow measured pace of the novel for a special effects laden fairly stock horror film.  The threat is made expressly supernatural, and the reason for the haunting has been changed from the original book.  And whereas the violence in the other versions is subdued, this film features several gory killings and attacks.

The Shirley Jackson Award

Every year since 2007, Readercon, a science fiction convention held in Boston, has presented the Shirley Jackson Award to honor the best works of psychological horror.

More Haunted Houses:

Haunted houses are a staple of Horror Fiction and some ones that feature the grand house with a history of terror with two of the most famous being Stephen King’s The Shining and Peter Straub’s Ghost Story.  For an interesting comparison with The Haunting of Hill House, read Richard Matheson’s Hell House (1971), which features a very similar group of psychic investigators studying the Belasco House, and facing more violent ghostly forces.  (Made into a film, The Legend of Hell House, in 1973 directed by John Hough and starring Roddy McDowell and Pamela Frank).

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