Laura Dzubay: Shirley Jackson and the legacy of haunted houses

Tuesday, October 17, 2017 - 4:38pm

It’s October, and we’re quickly coming up on Halloween. That can only mean one thing…

Just kidding. It means a lot of things. There are the changing leaves and landscapes, and the familiar tastes of fall flavors like apple, pumpkin and cinnamon. If you’re like me, though, what you’re really thinking about these days is horror. Scary movies, scary costumes and, of course, haunted houses.

We’ve seen a lot of haunted houses in horror fiction. Even when the narrative doesn’t revolve specifically around the house, it’s often there, or there’s some part of the story in which the characters have to enter one. It’s one of the narratives that those of us who enjoy horror usually enjoy the most: a creepy, isolated house full of closed doors, dark rooms and basements, creaky floorboards and secrets.

One of the most enduring haunted house stories is The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. You might know Jackson already from “The Lottery,” that grim short story a lot of us had to read in middle or high school. In The Haunting of Hill House, she constructs a mesmerizing story about an evil house with an evil history, and the dark events that unfold when four very different people — a scientist, a thief, a flamboyant artist and a quiet woman with a dark past — spend a week there together.

Like many other frightening stories, this book can best be understood as an accumulation of horrors. There’s your typical fun pack of ghost-story scares: ominous writing appearing on the walls, doors slamming shut for no reason, clothes appearing covered in blood. These are all scary, but strangely, none of them hit home quite the way the book’s psychological elements do. The nighttime scenes and interactions between the characters propel the readers to ask disturbing questions: Whose hand was the character holding in the darkness, if not her friend’s? Can the narrator even be trusted, or has she fallen too far under the house’s influence? In terms of psychological horror, it doesn’t get much more spine-tingling than that.

Of course, as I said, there are a ton of different haunted house stories out there. The reason I’m choosing to focus on this one is because it’s a great example of horror literature, and there’s no better time to talk about horror literature than Halloween season.

Shirley Jackson is one of a host of writers — Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley are good historical examples, Stephen King if you’re looking for someone more recent — whose names are very much tied to the genre of horror. The names are famous and widely recognized, but it’s this attachment to genre that fascinates me. There’s a tendency among people to look down upon famous works and writers of horror, sometimes without even realizing that they’re doing it, because horror is considered genre fiction. It falls alongside science fiction and fantasy; it’s good, maybe, but it’s not great — it’s not “literary.” Its quality derives from the fact that it’s pulpy and popular.

Of course, to dig into this issue, one sort of needs to ask the question of what “literary” means to begin with, which is an enormous rabbit hole all on its own. To me, though, it seems clear that works like The Haunting of Hill House are meritorious and impactful. It was published in 1959, which makes it relatively recent as far as the ghost stories of history go, but it still provided a template for many terror-based and psychological haunted house stories to come. Even on a broader literary scale, it tells a captivating story that delves deep within the psyche of its narrator and convincingly captures emotions like envy, hatred, hope, uncertainty and distrust, which all affect us in our everyday lives.

The debate could go on for years — and, to some extent, already has — as to whether or not works of horror are worthy of serious literary attention. My recommendation is to pick a dark and rainy afternoon sometime this October, curl up with a library copy of The Haunting of Hill House and simply decide for yourself.