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.
I was fifteen when I first read Shirley Jackson's exquisite, perfect little horror novelThe Haunting of Hill House; in the thirty-five years since I have revisited it several times, and it never disappoints. Just this evening, while Paul watched the St. Louis Cardinals defeat the Philadelphia Phillies to win their play-off series, I finished what perhaps might be my tenth reading of this book throughout my lifetime. It had been years since my last reading of it; I believe it may have even been as many as seventeen or more.
When I was on Long Island last summer for Stoker Weekend, at one point I was sitting around a table with Vince Liaguno, Chad Helder, Jameson Currier and Michael Rowe discussing horror novels, and I mused aloud that I wasn't entirely certain The Haunting of Hill House was a horror novel; might it not just really be noir? Everyone disagreed with me, some rather fervently, and I realized that it was time for a revisiting; my memory of the book and its story was clearly not as thorough as I had imagined.
I found an omnibus of Shirley Jackson on ebay recently, and for a mere three dollars (plus shipping and handling) I received an edition that included her short story collection The Lottery and Other Stories, as well as The Haunting of HIll House andWe Have Always Lived in the Castle. This week, I sat in my easy chair and slowly but surely made my way through The Haunting of Hill House .
It really is quite extraordinary, and Shirley Jackson was truly a master of a sort of horror that was quiet yet terribly unsettling; vague but none the less horrific for it. She defined her characters quickly with a minimum of words, but despite the brevity of her prose, Ms. Jackson's characters were fully developed and thoroughly three dimensional.
And the character of Eleanor Vance is a masterpiece.
That opening paragraph--and its closing one which echoes the opening--alone is a masterwork. I of course paid homage to it in the opening of Vieux Carre Voodoo when I resurrected Scotty, much as I paid homage to my other favorite novel opening (Rebecca) with the opening of Mardi Gras Mambo.
As I reread the novel, it became very clear to me that I had not, in fact, reread the book since I officially became a writer myself; before when I read the book it was simply for enjoyment. Now, however, as an author and an editor, not only was I enjoying it as a reader but I was also marveling at Jackson's extraordinary mastery of her craft. Little wonder Stephen King dedicated a novel to her, with the note, "Because she never had to raise her voice."
And she didn't; The Haunting of Hill House, if read aloud, would indeed be read very softly, almost unemotionally--the amazing way the words are woven together really speaking for themselves.
As I have mentioned since then, I have really been thinking a lot more about writing horror than I have in the past. My recent sale, "An Arrow for Sebastian," while not horror, is, nevertheless, strongly influenced by Jackson in that I was trying to tell the story unemotionally and quietly--which frequently is the best way to get the power of the story itself across.
I think that, should I ever get the opportunity to teach writing again, I shall make my students read The Haunting of Hill House.
Today was a day of reflection; I finished the big editing job and turned it into the author and publisher this morning before work, and I have also reasoned out the correct way to finish this novel I've been struggling with--and I know now that I shall most probably finish it at long last this weekend--by Wednesday at the latest. I want to finish my short story "Happyland"--the submission deadline is the 15th--as well as another for yet another anthology that also closes on that same day.
I do enjoy writing short stories. I find myself taking risks in them that I would never attempt in a novel, and I find that writing them helps me to grow as a writer. (Okay, every novel I write, and every anthology or novel I edit also helps, but in different ways.) I am really glad to be writing more of them, and thinking about them some more.
After I work on Super Secret project, the next novel is the y/a Sara, which is very much a horror novel. (The other y/a's were as well, but in the final drafts I toned that aspect down dramatically; to the point where Sleeping Angel is pretty much a straightforward mystery.) There's no way I can tone down the horror aspects of Sara, though--and one of the umpteen books I have under contract is also a ghost story that I'll be working on at some point in the next couple of years.
And now, to bed.
And seriously--if you haven't read The Haunting of Hill House, you really really should.