Born in San Francisco in 1916, Shirley Jackson was a prolific short story writer and novelist, renowned for her works of horror, mystery and the supernatural. Her reputation was established by the story The Lottery, first published in The New Yorker in 1948. It prompted over three hundred letters from readers, many outraged by its unflinchingexposé of the dark side of human nature.
Published in 1959, the novel The Haunting of Hill House is a brooding gothic suspense, inspired by real-life psychic researchers. It tells the story of a small group of investigators who stay at an isolated house reputed to be haunted.
The academic leader of the project, Dr. John Montague, has a strong interest in the supernatural. He invites a select group of people, with a history of paranormal or psychic sensitivity, to take part in his research. Although built as a family home, Hill House has a eerie reputation:
“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 the hills, holding darkness 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.”
Ningún organismo vivo puede mantenerse cuerdo durante mucho tiempo en unas condiciones de realidad absoluta; incluso las alondras y las chicharras, suponen algunos, sueñan. Hill House, nada cuerda, se alzaba en soledad frente a las colinas, acumulando oscuridad en su interior [...] las paredes mantenían su verticalidad, los ladrillos se entrelazaban limpiamente, los suelos aguantaban firmes y las puertas permanecían cuidadosamente cerradas; el silencio empujaba incansable contra la madera y la piedra de Hill House, y lo que fuera que caminase allí dentro, caminaba solo.
The first guest to arrive is Eleanor Vance, who sees her stay at Hill House as an opportunity to reinvent herself. Fragile and lonely, Eleanor had been caring for her invalid mother, until her recent death. The mysterious house makes an immediate impression on Eleanor, despite the warnings of Mrs. Dudley, the housekeeper:
“‘We live over in the town, six miles away... So there won’t be anyone around if you need help.’
‘We couldn’t hear you, in the night.’
‘I don’t suppose–’
‘No one could. No one lives any nearer than the town. No one else will come any nearer than that.’
‘I know,’ Eleanor said tiredly.
‘In the night,’ Mrs. Dudley said, and smiled outright. ‘In the dark...’”
“—Vivimos en la ciudad, a diez kilómetros de aquí [...]De modo que no habrá nadie a quien recurrir en los alrededores si necesitan ayuda.
—Ni siquiera podríamos oírlos, en plena noche.
—No suponía que…
—Nadie podría. Entre la ciudad y aquí no vive nadie. Y nadie más quiere acercarse.
—Lo sé —dijo Eleanor cansadamente.
—En plena noche —dijo la señora Dudley, y sonrió abiertamente—. En la oscuridad...”.
Eleanor is joined by Theodora, a bohemian free spirit, and Luke, the owner’s nephew and heir to Hill House. Dr. Montague’s wife and friend arrive to help conduct experiments. As in all convincing ghost stories, the true terror of the novel is in its psychological depth. Readers may wonder if the strange voices, apparitions, cold draughts, dripping blood and ghostly writing are real or imagined. For the characters Eleanor and Theodora, listening in the dark, they certainly seem real:
“It started again, as though it had been listening... waiting to hear if they were afraid. So suddenly that Eleanor leaped back against the bed and Theodora gasped and cried out, the iron crash came against their door, and both of them lifted their eyes in horror... the sickening, degrading cold came in waves from whatever was outside the door....”
Comenzó de nuevo, como si hubiera estado escuchando [...] esperando a oír si tenían miedo. Tan de repente que Eleanor regresó de un salto a la cama y Theodora lanzó un grito entrecortado, el puño de hierro cayó contra la puerta, y las dos levantaron la mirada horrorizadas [...] el frío nauseabundo y degradante manaba en oleadas de lo que fuera que estaba al otro lado de la puerta.
time to live
The longer she stays at Hill House, the more Eleanor seems to lose her grip on reality. In a trance, she feels compelledto climb a dangerous iron staircase, and has to be rescued. Finally, Dr. Montague recognises the risk the house represents to Eleanor’s mental health. It is clear to everyone that she should leave, except Eleanor.
“She smiled brokenly up at the house, looking at her own window, at the amused, certain face of the house, watching her quietly. The house was waiting now, she thought, and it was waiting for her; no one else could satisfy it. ‘The house wants me to stay,’ she told the doctor, and he stared at her.”
Sonrió débilmente en dirección a la casa, mirando la ventana de su cuarto, el rostro divertido de la casa, que la observaba con certeza en silencio. Ahora la casa está esperando, pensó, y la estaba esperando a ella; nadie más podría satisfacerla.
—La casa quiere que me quede —le dijo al doctor, y éste se quedó mirándola sin decir nada”.
Described by the author Stephen King as “one of the finest horror novels of the late 20th century”, The Haunting of Hill House explores themes of sexuality, gender, mental health and family. Adapted for film twice, the novel also inspired the hit 2018 Netflix series of the same name. In 1962, Jackson published the mystery novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, also to critical acclaim. She died in 1965.