The Haunting of Hill HouseBy Shirley Jackson
To begin, I feel I should reproduce here the book's opening paragraph, often quoted (by, among others, Stephen King) as being one of the finest descriptive passages in the English language:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
The reader is at once drawn into the world inhabited by Eleanor Vance, an insecure, vaguely mysterious woman whose life has lost most of its meaning and direction. She becomes part of Dr Montague's investigation into paranormal occurrences at a country house, along with Theodora, a rather more flamboyant character, and Luke Sanderson, the wastrel nephew of the house's owner. The book deals as much with the relationships they form (particularly between the women; full of hidden significance and repressed violence), as it does with supernatural happenings. Eleanor finds herself strangely drawn to the house, with a mystifying sense of belonging. Has she in some way returned home? The haunting could be more to do with Eleanor than with the house; and the mystery surrounding her past only adds to this impression.
Jackson's writing style is delightfully sparse, being at once matter-of-fact yet brilliantly evocative, managing to convey so much with so few words. Everyday occurrences are lent heavy significance, and the reader is constantly on edge, wondering when the evil might creep out from the shadows of the seemingly mundane. As a result, when the house strikes, its effect is doubly powerful.
There were several scenes in the book which were genuinely scary. The one which stays with me the most occurred when Eleanor and Theodora were sharing a bedroom, and they held hands in the darkness for reassurance during a disturbance. 'Now, Eleanor thought, perceiving that she was lying sideways on the bed in the black darkness, holding with both hands to Theodora's hand, holding so tight she could feel the fine bones of Theodora's fingers.'
But when the light comes on, Eleanor realises that Theodora had been asleep, and it could not have been Theodora's hand she held; and the reader suddenly wonders just what the 'fine bones' she felt could have been. '"Good God", Eleanor said, flinging herself out of bed and across the room to stand shuddering in a corner, "Good God – whose hand was I holding?"'
Apparently Jackson researched thoroughly before she wrote The Haunting of Hill House, reading all the ghost stories she could, visiting supposedly haunted houses, and the result is something of a study of the horror genre. It must be one of the finest ghost stories ever written.
The Lottery and Other StoriesBy Shirley Jackson
The story I enjoyed the most was The Tooth, which breaks my rule that it's necessary for a good short story to have a good title! Overcoming my distaste, I was stunned by this ambiguous gem. Jackson is adept at creating atmosphere, and the sense of impending doom this tale creates is almost suffocating. Clara Spencer has a sore tooth; and she takes herself off to the big city to see a dentist. As far as the plot goes, that's about it; but, as in all the most haunting tales, the beauty is in the journey.
My Life With R. H. Macy is a stream-of-consciousness look at the dehumanising effects of mundane employment, and is chillingly hilarious. In The Daemon Lover, a woman waits for, then searches for, the man she is to marry that day, only to find that he has disappeared as completely as if he had never existed; and she finds it possible to forgive, but not to forget. In Trial by Combat, a shy woman confronts her kleptomaniac neighbour, and in Pillar of Salt, a tourist in New York is gradually paralysed by the threatening city. These are disturbing, unforgettable tales with satisfyingly ambiguous endings.
Jackson had two writing styles. She wrote with detail and humour about domesticity, lending a significance to everyday chores; and yet she could move swiftly to cold-blooded and dispassionate psychological horror without apparent effort. Her taut and spare prose builds a story's mood quickly and efficiently, ideal for short stories where the reader needs to be engaged from the first line. She must have been a pioneer of the unresolved ending; and, in fact, my only caveat about this collection is that one or two of the stories have endings which seem to be truncated rather than unresolved.
These tales are beautifully written, and I enjoyed reading them all. They are eerie, unforgettable, by turns terrifying and hilarious, creating a bright, sharp world where the strange lurks in the darkness just around the corner, and where nothing is quite as it seems. The Lottery and Other Stories was the only collection to be published during the author's lifetime.