The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Hosted by Ruth Franklin
Began on October 10, 2023 (19 Days)
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Fall is upon us, the season of fuzzy sweaters, pumpkin spice lattes, and ghosts. How better to celebrate the imminent chill in the air—it will cool off soon, won’t it?—than with one of the all-time horror classics: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1958). Jackson wanted Hill House to be “the kind of novel you really can’t read alone in a dark house at night,” and by all accounts she succeeded: many consider the book one of the scariest ever written.
But Hill House is much more than a ghost story. It’s a story about dysfunctional families and all the damage they can wreak; about the madness that can arise from too much rejection and too many dreams deferred; about feeling isolated even—or especially—when surrounded by people; about longing to go home, wherever home may be. More than anything else, it’s a story about fear, and what the things we’re afraid of can tell us about who we are. “It is fear itself, fear of self that I am writing about,” Jackson once wrote.
It's also gorgeously written. Stephen King called its legendary first paragraph one of the finest descriptive passages in the English language, “the sort of quiet epiphany every writer hopes for: words that somehow transcend the sum of the parts.” It’s a master class in creating and dispelling tension, in using description to create a mood, and in ambiguity—critics are still debating whether Jackson intended the ghosts to be real or just a figment of the characters’ imagination. Every page has gems of style. And it’s very funny.
It's also short—fewer than 250 pages—and tightly paced. We’ll proceed slowly, taking time to savor Jackson’s language and dissect her techniques. For Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, my biography of Jackson, I looked closely at her drafts and notes for the novel, as well as pictures of houses she used for inspiration and the ghost stories she drew upon, both well-known and obscure. I’ll bring in this information as it becomes relevant.
I’ve read The Haunting of Hill House at least half a dozen times; I love it so much that I have a tattoo inspired by it. I can’t wait to read it again with you.
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Join us on October 30 for a virtual discussion of The Haunting of Hill House with Ruth Franklin.
is the author of the book Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography, and was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2016. She is also the author of A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction (2011), which was a finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Writing. Her criticism and essays appear in the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, the New York Review of Books, Harper’s, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in biography, a Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library, a Leon Levy Fellowship in biography, and the Roger Shattuck Prize for Criticism. She teaches nonfiction writing in the MFA program at the Columbia University School of the Arts. Her biography of Anne Frank is forthcoming from the Yale Jewish Lives series.
The Haunting of Hill House. Chapter 1, Part 1-3
October 10, 2023 by Ruth Franklin
Today our journey into this novel begins, with its deservedly classic first paragraph.
The Haunting of Hill House. Chapter 1, Part 4-5
October 11, 2023 by Ruth Franklin
Her journey to Hill House begins on “the first genuinely shining day of summer.”
The Haunting of Hill House. Chapter 2
October 12, 2023 by Ruth Franklin
“No Human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair.”
The Haunting of Hill House. Chapter 3, Part 1-3
October 13, 2023 by Ruth Franklin
“It is fear itself, fear of self, that I am writing about."
The Haunting of Hill House. Chapter 3, Part 4
October 14, 2023 by Ruth Franklin
Dr. Montague raises the question of whether Hill House was “born bad” or acquired its evil from the people who lived there.
The Haunting of Hill House. Chapter 3, Part 5
October 15, 2023 by Ruth Franklin
More about Eleanor.
The Haunting of Hill House. Chapter 4, Part 1 – first half
October 16, 2023 by Ruth Franklin
All the little ways in which Eleanor’s insecurity manifests itself—and shades almost imperceptibly into paranoia.
The Haunting of Hill House. Chapter 4, Part 1 – finish
October 17, 2023 by Ruth Franklin
Why doesn’t Eleanor want to recognize that Hill House is real?
The Haunting of Hill House. Chapter 4, Part 2-5
October 18, 2023 by Ruth Franklin
Another odd, charged encounter between Eleanor and Theodora.
The Haunting of Hill House. Chapter 4, Part 6
October 19, 2023 by Ruth Franklin
Before we get to the actual haunting, I want to pause for just a moment to consider the novel’s pacing.
The Haunting of Hill House. Chapter 5, Part 1
October 20, 2023 by Ruth Franklin
“It wanted to consume us, take us into itself, make us a part of the house,” Eleanor says.
The Haunting of Hill House. Chapter 5, Part 2-4
October 21, 2023 by Ruth Franklin
This section starts with the Hill House crew performing a parody of a family vacation, although one, notably, in which there’s no maternal figure.
The Haunting of Hill House. Chapter 6
October 22, 2023 by Ruth Franklin
In my book about Jackson, I read Hill House as a commentary on Jackson’s tortured marriage to literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, who both supported her creative work and sabotaged it.
The Haunting of Hill House. Chapter 7, Part 1-2
October 23, 2023 by Ruth Franklin
Just when things start to get really intense, Jackson throws us some comic relief in the form of Mrs. Montague and Arthur.
The Haunting of Hill House. Chapter 7, Part 3-4
October 24, 2023 by Ruth Franklin
Jackson amps up the chill factor of the scene in which Mrs. Montague and Arthur read the dialogue directed to Eleanor by having them remain stubbornly oblivious to its significance.
The Haunting of Hill House. Chapter 8, Part 1-3
October 25, 2023 by Ruth Franklin
Eleanor awakens with a new feeling of oneness with the house: suddenly she can hear “everything, all over.”
The Haunting of Hill House. Chapter 8, Part 4-8
October 26, 2023 by Ruth Franklin
I knew Arthur reminded me of someone, but it took me until now to figure out who.
The Haunting of Hill House. Chapter 9, Part 1
October 27, 2023 by Ruth Franklin
This whole chapter! The slow reading helps me see even more what a tour de force it is.
The Haunting of Hill House. Chapter 9, Part 2 - end
October 28, 2023 by Ruth Franklin
I’ve read this novel at least half a dozen times, but tears still come to my eyes at the ending.