Shirley Jackson, you crafty, crafty woman! Only one dark genius can create such an insidious haunted house story with scares that go far beyond the horror genre tropes. On the surface, this is a story about a paranormal research experiment gone awry in a legendary haunted house. I know you’re thinking, “I’ve read this same story 100 times!” Not so fast, chief! Sure, the characters and the house may seem cliched, but trust me, there’s more to the story. It’s a slow burn, but the tension rises as our unreliable narrator slowly loses touch with reality. Remember the boiler scene from The Shining? Well, it’s kind of like that only the climax is more…implosive, I should say.
If you love a good scare, you’ve come to the right place. And trust me, this house is so much more than a cavernous monstrosity filled with drafty hallways, spooky statues and bumps in the night. The slow descent into madness begins with some foreboding words from the superstitious housemaid Mrs. Dudley.
“We couldn’t even hear you, in the night….
No one could. No one lives any nearer than 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,” she said..”
But perhaps the source of fear isn’t the house. Something isn’t right with our leading lady Eleanor. Sure, she’s a sweet little milquetoast of a woman. But you know what they say, be careful of the quiet ones. We learn early on that she’s a little off her rocker, but I do appreciate her misanthropic sentiments about society and family. I particularly liked this scene in the diner when an insolent little girl, who is used to drinking her milk out of a special cup with stars, refuses to go along to get along.
“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.”
Early in the story, we learn that the house is imperceptibly crooked. It appears to be well built, but, as the professor says, something’s just a wee bit off. Hmmm..sounds like the house and Eleanor have quite a bit in common. Her blossoming love affair with the house prompts me to think about the toxicity of co-dependent relationships, and the darkness that can manifest from people feeding off of each other. Deep thoughts, I know. Like I said, this book–if you let it–will take you to the dark places.
“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.”
As she becomes one with the haunted house, my equilibrium is thrown off. Being inside the mind of a mentally-deteriorating person is far and away more frightening than maniacal clowns or a ghostly girl crawling out of a deep, dark well. Perhaps because I felt like I was slowly but surely being swallowed whole by that spiraling dark hole in the ground. Somebody throw me a flashlight already!!!
I could go on and on about the themes Jackson masterfully folded into this book, but what would be the fun of reading it if I ruined all the surprises? To be fair, I’m not even sure I have it figured out. And therein lies the genius of Jackson’s works. The best horror stories are the ones that leave you dumbfounded. Sure, you can have theories but the answers will forever remain unknown.
Happy hauntings, everyone! Oh and I should note that I will NOT be writing a book/TV series comparison because there’s no way any Hollywood production could capture the horrors that only Shirley Jackson can produce in writing.