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.
John H. says
A few years ago, I heard a BBC radio production of “…Hill House”. I enjoyed it.
I read I Am Legend for the first time around that same time, I think. It would have been great for The Twilight Zone. It could have been the one hour-long episode that didn’t drag.
Dave Knadler says
Hill House would be perfect for radio. Now there’s a lost art: adapting written works for the radio. Wish somebody was still doing that.
I read “Hill House” years ago and was impressed by the craftsmanship. It isn’t easy to build a “sense of abiding dread” and sustain it. You’ve made me want to read the book again. Now if I can just find it . . .
Dave Knadler says
Know the feeling. My favorite books are the ones that seem to disappear first.
Jessie K says
I just dashed to the library to check out Jackson’s The Haunting at Hill House (I always try to read books you recommend because you never steer me wrong), but it didn’t show up in the database. It took a bit of hunting before I figured out the name had been shortened at some point in the last 30ish yrs to simply “The Haunting.” In case any of your other readers look for it.