“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality: even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against it’s hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” (From The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson, copyright 1959)
So began what is considered by many, to be the finest ghost story ever written. The above opening paragraph is taught in many creative writing classes as perfection–catching up the reader immediately in the story. It has it all. It sets the table, so to speak. Time, place, subject, powerful, vivid flavor–the writer’s craft at it’s best.
I have written two mysteries. I can absolutely assure you that neither opening paragraph came anywhere near Shirley’s quality. I’m good, but I’m not that good.
Shirley Hardie Jackson (December 14, 1916 – August 8, 1965). She didn’t give interviews, believing her work would speak for itself. Indeed it does. Even these many years since she left this mortal life, she is still considered the master. She was only 48 when she passed, a victim of a weak heart. The literary world was cheated.
Shirley would live to see her work produced on the big screen–the 1963 classic titled simply The Haunting. It had a stellar cast. Julie Harris, Clair Bloom, Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn. The screenplay was credibly written to include a bit of humor–a very effective technique in a good horror movie. It worked. I remember going to see it with my mom (I was fourteen). She was a lover of good books, and hence a fan of Jackson. We were both scared poop-less. It is one of the golden memories of my childhood.
The movie was reprised in 1999. It may (or may not) have been good. The critics were not impressed. To be honest, I have never seen it. I’ll stick with the classic, thank you very much. If you want to see an example of terrific movie-making, rent the ’63 version. You will not be disappointed. Not a computer generated effect to be found in the entire film. It didn’t need them. In an age of color, it was filmed in beautiful black and white.
If you want to be frightened half-to-death even more effectively, by all means read the book. A dark mid-October night by the fire in the company of Shirley Jackson. It just doesn’t get any better than that. Pull your blankey up tight around your shoulders–and grip the novel firmly.
And try not to hear . . . the creaking and groans of an old house.
Next up . . . two more classics. Mary Shelley’s, Frankenstein–and W. W. Jacobs’, The Monkey’s Paw.
In the meantime, good night, good reading, and . . . Happy Nightmares!