December 14th, 2016 marks the 100th birthday of Shirley Jackson, an author whose work has been both lauded and derided by critics, often along gender lines. When “The Lottery” appeared in the New Yorker in 1948, many readers were shocked that a wife and mother would concoct such an unhappy ending. Others cast her supernatural tales into the category of gothic romance—fluffy reading, filled with soft sighs in spooky settings, aimed at bored housewives. In response to such accusations, Jackson said very little. While she was a prolific letter writer, she did not give many interviews and refused to interpret her work for the public. As she got older, she became increasingly reclusive. In 1962 she experienced a six-month period during which she could not leave her home.
As much as she tried to hide away from the public eye, Jackson left an invitation into her world through her work—in particular the first of her “house books,” The Haunting of Hill House (1959). Even if you haven’t read the novel, you most likely know the plot, which has become a standard trope in supernatural horror films such as The Haunting (1963, 1999), The Legend of Hell House (1973), and Stephen King’s Rose Red (2002). The now-familiar narrative centers on an academic who wants to investigate a haunted house and either prove or disprove the existence of spirits there. Technology and books are not sufficient for this task, so the investigator invites a group of strangers—including a woman with occult gifts—to help him plumb the invisible depths of the structure.
The main character in The Haunting of Hill House is the house itself. Enshrouded in fog and forest, Hill House is a Victorian manse of impossible proportions—a hulking structure, all but abandoned, and filled with secrets. Throughout the novel, Jackson describes the house as a living being–watchful, malevolent, and hungry—that both longs for visitors but very much wants to be left alone.
The first guest to be swallowed by Hill House is Eleanor, a meek young woman looking to escape the horrors of her nuclear family. Pushing through the front door, Eleanor enters into the maw of Hill House and is slowly chewed and digested in its darkened chambers. As Eleanor’s psyche dissolves, so do the boundaries between her own identity and that of the house. Like a bad mother, Hill House seeks the destruction of the human life within her. Like a bad father or a monstrous husband, it dictates all of the rules—demands to have its way. In this dynamic, some reviewers, including feminists, have seen Eleanor’s experience at Hill House as a psychic projection of the horrors of domestic life wrought on women by patriarchal family structures.
For Jackson, however, Hill House was not merely an object lesson in the horrors of domesticity. Published six years before her death, it was, perhaps, something far more intimate—a manifestation of her own haunted embodiment. As Jackson aged, she increasingly struggled with her weight, a persistent issue since adolescence. Her husband’s affairs with his recently-graduated students from Bennington College left her feeling abandoned by the one person she trusted enough to let inside of her, both spiritually and physically.
After the release of The Haunting in 1963, readers and critics made increasing attempts to push into her world, to know her from the inside. Like Hill House, Jackson both longed for connection but was terrified of forceful invasion by strangers. Of note, sexual contact did not figure into her work—the penetration of haunted houses by unwanted others being the only form of physical intercourse. So, like Hill House, she protected herself with high walls and dense forests, donning a façade of occultism as a warning to curious trespassers. The dark secrets buried in her basement, the memories in her attic, the tendrils of smoke and phantom drafts that haunted her interior hallways would remain her private “delusions,” as she called them, although some would make their way into her writing. Like Eleanor, she had become one with the haunted house in which she dwelled—and which dwelled in her.
Shirley Jackson was Hill House—dreaming on edges of the quotidian, “holding darkness within.” Like Hill House, “whatever walked” within her “walked alone.” The Haunting of Hill House is an invitation to explore her darkest fear—her embodied self—and the haunted life that she led under the watchful gaze of the world. If you push past the gate and cross the threshold, you are on holy ground. Enter with reverence.