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Review: “The Haunting of Hill House (1959)” by Shirley Jackson (5 Stars)

A place of nuanced genius where psychological suspense meets the supernatural highlighting the lulls of reality in which we deceive ourselves while we all slowly tilt toward an inevitable yet unpredictable whizz-bang ending!

The story told by Jackson gives a loose account of the protagonist’s experiences at an alleged haunted house. The premise feels droll and full of artifice and the author paces the narrative in even fashion as we literally drive with the main character, Eleanor, to the story. However, the nuanced prose in which this story is wrought is delivered to us in a much more thoughtful manner than what initially appears.

We are first introduced to the protagonist and given clever details and insights into her personality and life experience before she walks past the guardian’s gate of supernatural terrors. All of this is done quick enough in this shortish book, but it leaves us with a very clear sense of who Eleanor is without the burden and weight of so much heavy prose. Perhaps this deft brevity is part of the genius of Shirley Jackson, for in counterbalance the elements which we come to readily expect in a tale of Gothic fiction bring about their own importance without unnecessary words or over-explanation. Of course, ambiguity is a classic tool in the genres of horror and weird fiction (a favorite element for me personally), though here none of it feels contrived.

The other aspect of writing carried through the narrative is the subtle way Jackson filters in the psychological elements of suspense for the protagonist which run in parallel to the rote pedantic educational expositions of the Doctor character and his wife, who serve more as checks on reality and sources of humor—another unsung element. Comedy and horror are sisters in their relationship of genre and they are often played against each other to great or ridiculous effect in film. Here, the comedy follows a sort of biting sarcasm to complement the evolving terror without jolting one out of the narrative, nor (and more importantly) as a cheap literary device designed to pull the emotional arc of the plot forward. Jackson’s use of humor feels original and different and in keeping with the characters. The absurd doesn’t feel so absurd or out of place. The laughs fit in with the growing dread and sense of helplessness in a sort of existential way.

The other characters occasionally tread near to crossing the danger line of becoming farcical and one dimensional, but we stay close to Eleanor in a ghostly sort of way. It is this unsettling closeness that breathes life and terror into the events that transpire. Our reader’s lens travels through Eleanor’s viewpoint and yet it somehow remains on the outside looking in. All of this fits together in the way that a picture might remain slightly out of focus, blurry enough to reveal all which needs seeing but also serving to make one feel uncomfortable—providing a sort of shifted-perspective on the story or on life itself. We acquire a genuine familiarity and relatability to Eleanor even as things go dark for her.

This story is heralded by many critics as the best haunted house story that ever was. Reading it in later times, after having read or seen or heard other efforts of horror in both literature or film or even in radio plays, one wonders who else might have drawn from this well. And then one reads along, nodding at the seemingly familiar mile posts expected along the way. However, as the narrative continues, we realize that the mile posts stopped following the highway somewhere a ways back and that now the path has transformed from the asphalt and straight lines of civilized society into the crooked and roughshod dirt of the untamed wilderness. By then, there is no choice but to meet doom’s end and seek the shrine of old and ancient divinities to find out just what’s become of oneself.  Suddenly, the familiar is not really as familiar as one suspected.

Don’t skip this one…get wholly lost in the darkness…and the terror inside.

Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Tune-In Radio, Stitcher, Google Play Music, YouTube or our website (www.nodeodorant.com).

Episode Link: https://nodeodorantinouterspace.wordpress.com/2019/10/15/review-the-haunting-of-hill-house-shirley-jackson

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2019 in Book Reviews

 

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Inspirations for “Curious Anomalies”

Some years ago I wrote a science fiction story titled “Curious Anomalies.” The story has a sort of classic mad scientist scifi/horror feel.

Curious Anomalies - early lab layout

early lab layout

Synopsis: “Rick Silvano, an anxious young geneticist, has gotten himself entangled with a violent, South American, drug-lord named Diego Peres. Rick’s talents have been enlisted by Peres to create genetically enhanced watchdogs, by combining common moustache bats with Africanized honeybees. Everything has gone smoothly for the last three years until now, the night before Peres is due to inspect his investment. Clive Pinkerman, who hosts a late-night, radio conspiracy show, announces on-air that he is going to break into the genetic laboratory to uncover a massive alien conspiracy he believes is housed there. Suddenly, Rick must juggle his time between stopping Clive, and making sure the experiment works so that the temperamental Peres will not be displeased.”At the time I wrote this story I was employed doing delivery work for a medical laboratory. After reading a story about the future of genetics I got inspired to write something. The article mentioned making all these crazy hybrids, like crossing a silkworm with a goat so that silk production could take place in the goats milk sac at an increased rate. Real Interesting stuff. Well, that got my mind wandering.

I came up with the idea of crossing bees with bats. Why I decided on that combination I can’t remember. I have always had a fascination with nature, and bee keeping is something I’m always curious about. Bats are also interesting creatures. Brown bats are common where I grew up. At dusk you could throw wood chips in the air and watch the bats dive bomb them using their echo-location capabilities. Once, when I was young, I found a pair of young bats clinging to their recently deceased mother on the side of the road. I coaxed them onto a stick and took them home and kept them in a box. My siblings and I hid them from my parents, but unfortunately they died overnight…

In any case, I got the idea of having this “bat-bee” cross, but needed a story to explain why it existed. I centered the story around a laboratory hidden deep in the woods, which was being funded by an eccentric South American drug lord. I saw the drug lord as the patron of this scientist who created the bat-bees. He wanted them as an alternative to guard dogs which were no longer working out for him.

Another inspiration came from the radio. At some point I worked the midnight shift at my delivery job. I got to listening to talk radio and was turned on to Art Bell’s Coast to Coast AM show. If your familiar with the show then you know a lot of it centers around aliens, flying saucers and all things strange. So, while working on the story I added a similar style call-in show as an element to drive the tension.

All these things came together to form a sort of classic mad scientist science fiction/horror story. It’s a straight-forward sort of story but I think it delivers and does what I intended it to do. It also wraps up much more neatly than a lot of my other stories.

Since I wrote the story so long ago I can’t remember what music I was listening to at the time. That being said, I can say that while editing it recently I listened to the album “Hisingen Blues” by the band Graveyard. all the songs on that album are awesome. Some of my favorites are: “The Siren,” “Ain’t Fit to Live Here,” “Hsingen Blues,” “Longing,” and “Uncomfortably Numb.”

 
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Posted by on September 14, 2012 in Articles, Curious Anomalies

 

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