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Strange Joy

Be Afraid! Be Very Afraid!

Be Afraid! Be Very Afraid!

Every October, in honor of Halloween, I love to read classic horror stories. This last week, I read Hugh Lamb’s Dover collection of rare finds entitled A Bottomless Grave and Other Victorian Tales of Terror. Last year at this time, I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but this year I ventured on Shirley Jackson’s other famous novel, The Haunting of Hill House, which is equally spellbinding. (What I do not bother to read are the Stephen King and Dean Koontz type of novels that go in strictly for crude shocks.)

Usually, haunted house novels like to go in for crude effects. In contrast Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is delicately nuanced. Does this haunted house really do any damage with all its noise and strange writing on the walls and apparent destruction of one lady’s wardrobe? Actually, it does only one thing: It recognizes in Eleanor Vance, a spinster who is one of the party investigating the house, a kindred spirit. And it wants her. Badly.

Shirley Jackson (1916-1965)

Shirley Jackson (1916-1965)

The real terror is not external, it resides within the human breast. Eleanor had spent her adult life as a nursemaid to her mother, who has died before the action of the story begins. She has, as the saying goes, no life of her own. The one line that keeps running through her mind during the course of the book is, “Journeys end in lovers meeting.”

For Shirley Jackson to see into the tortured heart of Eleanor Vance—and through all the flummery of haunted houses and planchettes—makes her one of the great writers of horror fiction. And this after Eleanor’s initial response to the house, which is one of horror and loathing. At the risk of giving the whole shooting match away, I will continue the quote that ends the last paragraph:

Journeys end in lovers meeting; I have spent an all but sleepless night, I have told lies and made a fool of myself, and the very air tastes like wine. I have been frightened half out of my foolish wits, but I have somehow earned this joy; I have been waiting for it for so long.

This book deserves on the same shelf with that other great psychological story of haunting, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.

One thought on “Strange Joy

  1. It’s great story, probably the best “haunted house” novel I’ve read, and she does it, as you say, without blood and gore and slashers galore. There are two film versions which I’ve seen, but neither was that memorable. I think the first was the best of the two, but don’t hold me to that.

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