I'm a big fan of ghost stories, even though I hardly ever read them. The problem is, there aren’t many good ones around. So recently I picked up a copy of Shirley Jackson’s classic The Haunting of Hill House. And then Richard Matheson’s Hell House, which borrows enough from Jackson’s book to be almost an homage. Not sure why I never got around to reading them before.
Jackson is known mostly for her classic short story “The Lottery,” which still stands as a definitive example of the craft. Raise your hand if you managed to get through high school without once reading it. If so, find it now and check it out. Or else mail your diploma back to the school from which it came. “The Lottery” used to be required in certain classes and still should be.
Hill House is far different in tone and style. The terror starts slowly, instead of arriving all at once. It builds and recedes in a series of sine waves — which I think serves to sustain the sense of abiding dread. When you repeatedly juxtapose sunny normality with paranormal darkness, guess which one grabs you by the throat?
You probably know the premise: An old house with a lethal history attracts the attention of a paranormal investigator. He enlists a few assistants. Bad things happen. While The Haunting of Hill House isn’t a perfect book, it’s probably the best example of the genre. For me, the ending didn’t quite deliver the killing stroke suggested by the intervening chapters. It’s still pretty scary. I won’t say anything more in case somebody out there doesn’t know the ending.
Even those who haven’t read the book will be familiar with one of the two movies based on it, both entitled The Haunting: the 1963 version — which isn’t bad — or the 1999 version, which stinks to high heaven and almost single-handledly killed Liam Neeson’s career.
Richard Matheson’s Hell House contains all the differences you’d expect in a book published in 1971, as opposed to one in 1959. That’s not what you’d call a subtle title. Also, it’s more forthright about sex and a lot more explicit about violence. While Jackson has a more restrained, literary style, Matheson always wrote like he expected all his stuff to become movies. (I Am Legend, for example.) Like most of his work, Hell House is quite the page turner. Not a lot of boring parts. But between the two books, I’d say Jackson’s is much less ridiculous. In any case, I think I’ve now had enough ghost-themed reading to last me through Halloween.