Dying Embers out now

Dying Embers out now

Monday, 8 July 2013

Reviews: The Haunting of Hill House and The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson is one of those authors whose work I had always wanted to read, but had somehow never quite managed. In the end, it was down to James Everington; he had mentioned his admiration of her work on several occasions, and eventually I downloaded both The Haunting of Hill House and The Lottery and Other Stories from our friends at Amazon.

The Haunting of Hill House

By Shirley Jackson

This is well known as one of the most famous and influential of haunted house tales, later filmed as The Haunting by Robert Wise in 1963 (though I must admit I have not seen it).
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 Stories

By Shirley Jackson

Jackson was widely known as the author of The Lottery, a short story which was first published in 1948 in the New Yorker magazine, creating much controversy at the time. It provoked an unprecedented response from the public; a record number of letters arrived at the publisher's offices, most of them demanding to know what the story meant. I admit I read The Lottery first, although it is the final story in this collection. It is certainly dark and sinister. It describes with growing suspense a small-town lottery; but to decide exactly what? Perhaps its indictment of small-town America is not so shocking now, but it must surely have been challenging at the time. It's not the story that sticks in my mind the most from this collection, however, perhaps because it is just a little too conventional. Nonetheless it's perfectly-formed, and it is, quite rightly, one of the best-known short stories ever written.

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.

2 comments:

  1. Martin, this was such a riveting read! I'm ashamed to admit that I've read only one of Jackson's tales, The Haunting of Hill House, but have always intended to read more. Several years ago, someone shared the opening paragraph of the story with me and it had me hooked. Now, after reading your review, my enthusiasm for this author has once more been fired up. Another book to order me thinks... Cheers!

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    1. Thanks for the comments Paul, glad you liked the post. Yes, I'm sure you'd enjoy her short stories; a must read I'd say (at least, now I've read them!)

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