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What to Read: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill HouseAt this time last year, I was teaching a high-school class called “Dreams and Nightmares: Literature of the Sublime and the Uncanny”. The first book we read was The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Although some of my lesson plans met with more success than others, I think that it was, on the whole, an excellent pedagogical tool. The haunted house is, of course, the ne plus ultra of the uncanny as defined by Sigmund Freud—the German term unheimlich basically translates to “un-home-like” or “un-homey”—so Jackson’s story of a house that is “not sane" was a fine place to begin our class. The book also gave us a chance to talk about Freud’s theory of repression, which several of the youngsters found compelling, and every adolescent pays close attention to the teacher when the topic of conversation is lesbians.

The children were not nearly as fascinated by the concept of folie á deux as I was, nor did they care at all about the Misses Moberly and Jourdain and their strange story’s impact on Jackson’s narrative. While I am always disappointed by a lesson plan that goes nowhere, I had been teaching long enough not to be terribly surprised. What did surprise me, though—shocked me, really—was the fact that none of my students seemed to find The Haunting of Hill House at all frightening because, in my opinion, The Haunting of Hill House is really fucking scary.

I am not alone in thinking this. When, after I first read this book, I asked Sarah Hand if she had ever read it, her immediate response was a guttural noise of terror. When I asked my mom, the very question made her shudder. My first reading of the book prompted a physiological reaction that remains, for me, unique: my eyes watered from fear. This was not, I must explain, weeping. It was something else altogether, more like a cold sweat pouring from my eyes than crying. I just finished reading the book for a third time, and it still gives me the shivers.

I’ve tried to figure out why it is that the children didn’t find this book scary. It’s possible that they have been desensitized by the unsubtle gore and cartoonish morbidity of popular horror. But I wonder, too, if Jackson’s narrative of dissolution—of a woman losing her identity—might not be be properly appreciated only by people of some maturity. Adolescents are in flux anyway, just figuring themselves out; perhaps the idea of loss of self is not all that terrifying to people who are only just developing a self. And, reading the novel for a third time, I am struck anew by the calm elegance of Jackson’s prose. Without ever raising her voice or resorting to extravagant language, she is able to communicate situations that are absolutely existentially wrong—states of being that simply should not be. It’s impossible to describe how chilling some of her passages are, because to describe them—to paraphrase—would rob them of their considerable power. To appreciate these moments, though, requires patience and careful reading—not necessarily the kind of reading employed by students who have to get to page 163 before the next class.

So, anyway, I still can’t say why the teens weren’t scared by The Haunting of Hill House but I continue to find it terrifying after multiple readings. It’s a mystery. I can say however, that I stand by original assessment: this book is really fucking scary.

April 24, 2020 | Permalink