The Haunting of Hill House is considered Shirley Jackson’s best work and perhaps the quintessential haunted house novel. A delicate but insidious mediation on the feminine, the supernatural, psychological trauma, and the oppression of family and society, the novel creates an unsettling and mesmerizing tableau for its readers. The novel is an updating of the Gothic convention of the haunted house, but also represents a fascination by Jackson of the worlds of ghost hunting, ESP, and parapsychology. The result is something much closer to “The Yellow Wallpaper” than The Shining. To suggest that there is not a starkly drawn line connecting all three of these literary works is to either ignore, or manifest a profound lack of understanding about, what drove Shirley Jackson and her influence on those who followed in her footsteps.
Jackson was already an established writer when she published Hill House in 1959. She was best known for “The Lottery” (1949), a creepy short story about a village’s abnormal social rituals. She researched ghost stories and architecture extensively, and told journalists that she too believed in ghosts. Some elements of the novel can be seen in Jackson’s own life as well. She had a troubled relationship with her mother, an absent father, and was herself a volatile and obsessive mother.
The work garnered praise immediately. The New York Times christened Jackson “the finest master currently practicing in the genre of the cryptic, haunted tale” and the Times literary Supplement called it “a novel which has distinctiveness and genuine power.” Stephen King esteemed the novel as one of the finest horror novels of all time and dedicated Firestarter to her.
An esteemed film version came out in 1963 and a less-than-lauded version in 1999, both called The Haunting. Netflix announced in 2017 that it was working on a miniseries adaptation that will be released in 2018.
At the time of publication of the novel, Jackson was well on her way to being regarded as one of the shining literary lights of her generation. Thanks to a woefully misguided biography and profoundly enormous group of scholars and academics who somehow failed to understand or appreciate the feminist subtext of the Jackson’s work, The Haunting of Hill House fell into disrepute and was disparaged as simply a haunted house story. Today, thanks to the belated renovation and resurrection of Jackson’s reputation, The Haunting of Hill House is not only recognized as perhaps the greatest haunted house story ever composed by an American writer, but much more: the devastating portrait of a woman’s fear and guilt, and the rage those emotions constructed coming apart at the seams.