I was an easily terrified child, and as a result, I never consumed much horror fiction. It’s only been within the past few years that I’ve built up enough of a tolerance for it to enjoy it. It started with Lovecraft because I find myself very interested in elder gods and while Lovecraft’s stories are frequently creepy (and often racist), I never found them scary. From Lovecraft, though, I went to Shirley Jackson.
I could tell you, I suppose, about We Have Always Lived in the Castle and its possibly-murderous, reclusive sisters. Others will be sure to think of “The Lottery,” which despite having had a public school education I don’t think I’ve ever read, something I should rectify immediately. But it’s The Haunting of Hill House that captured my heart. For one, it is a beautifully written book. Just look at this section from early on, when our protagonist Eleanor takes a lunch break on her road trip to Hill House:
Don’t do it, Eleanor told the little girl; insist on your cup of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again; don’t do it; and the little girl glanced at her, and smiled a little subtle, dimpling, wholly comprehending smile, and shook her head stubbornly at the glass. Brave girl, Eleanor thought; wise, brave girl.
But it’s more than that; there was something about Eleanor that resonated with me very strongly. Maybe it’s that resistance against the trap of “being like everyone else” – though Eleanor is, of course, already in that trap; she already gave up her cup of stars. She has been taking care of her ill mother. She has been living with her overbearing sister. Her trip to Hill House is her resistance. It is the first thing she has done for herself, because she wanted to, in goodness knows how long.
I’m going to talk about what happens at Hill House now, so if you haven’t read it and don’t want to find out what happens, turn away lest ye be spoiled. (For what it’s worth, I went into the book knowing about the creepiest scene in it and that scene still scared me. Your mileage, of course, may vary.) Eleanor is the first to arrive at Hill House and she is also the most affected by it. It has in some way chosen her as its vessel. It writes her name on its walls, it lures her to the place she least wants to go, it drives her ultimately to her death. (Yes, that pun was intended.)
The scene that that scared me the most, though, came when Theodora – Eleanor’s closest friend in Hill House, as well as her sometimes-enemy – moves into Eleanor’s room after the walls in her own have been defaced with ‘HELP ELEANOR COME HOME ELEANOR’. In the cold, dark room, they reach out and hold hands to defend against the terror. Eleanor hears what sounds like a child crying out, screaming, and clutches Theodora’s hand tighter. She herself finally screams and after she does, the lights are on and Theodora is sitting up in bed. She “fling[s] herself out of bed” and says, “God God–whose hand was I holding?”
My description, of course, does not do the written scene justice, but trust me: this is possibly the scariest scene I have ever read in a fiction book. To reach for a safeguard against terror, to have it, and then to realize that none of it was real – or, perhaps worse, that what you held was, in fact, that terror. Just thinking about the scene gives me shivers. It’s a testament to Shirley Jackson’s writing, that she could create a scene with only words that has such a visceral effect on its reader. Most writers only hope to achieve such an accomplishment.