American Collections blog

17 December 2019

Best American Ghost Story?

Inspired by George Goodwin’s recent American Collections blog and its reference to A Christmas Carol – and ignoring Jill’s protestations in a recent episode of ‘The Archers’ – now is the perfect time to indulge in some ghost stories. And if the indulgence is going to be American, there are few better choices than Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959).

Image of terrified woman with eyes wide open with fear.
Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House. London: Four Square Books, 1963; shelfmark 012212.a.1/848

Jackson first came to the public’s attention with ‘The Lottery’, a short story published in The New Yorker in June 1948.1 With its hopeful title and shocking twist, it resulted in cancelled subscriptions for the magazine and hundreds of letters for Jackson. Many of these expressed bewilderment or speculation about the story’s meaning, but a good proportion were downright abusive. Jackson was surprised by the strength of this reaction, yet seems to have remained unfazed. Indeed, you can almost hear the smile in her voice as she tells Hugh Henry Jackson, literary editor of the San Francisco Chronicle: ‘The number of people who expected Mrs Hutchinson to win a Bendix washing machine at the end would amaze you’.2 

While ‘The Lottery’ has been a fixture of American school curricula for decades, the rest of Jackson’s work has, until recently, been largely overlooked.3 Even her biographer, Ruth Franklin, admits that it was not until Library of America's Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories (2010) – edited by Joyce Carol Oates – that she started reading beyond ‘The Lottery’ and The Haunting of Hill House, despite the latter having long been one of her favourite books. And critics and writers concur with Franklin’s assessment. In 1959 The New York Times Book Review rated The Haunting among the year’s Best Fiction; it was a 1960 National Book Awards finalist, alongside works by Saul Bellow, John Updike and Philip Roth; in Danse Macabre (1981),  Stephen King argues it is one of the best horror books of the twentieth century; and last year, Neil Gaiman named it the scariest book he'd ever read, ahead of  ‘The Turn of the Screw’, Salem’s Lot and The Shining.4   

Black and white image of Neil Gaiman; his hands are extremely prominent while the rest of his face and image are quite dark
Neil Gaiman. Copyright: Ander McIntyre; held as part of the British Library collections.

Far be it from us to spoil the plot, of course. Suffice to say that as with all great ghost stories, it is never clear whether the supernatural manifestations in The Haunting of Hill House are real, or whether they are the projections of the protagonist’s psyche. Either way, the effect is chilling and irresistible.

Happy reading ... and happy Christmas!

References

[1]. The New Yorker, 26 June 1948; shelfmark P.903/858.

[2]. Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. New York: Liveright Publishing Corp., 2016, pp. 232-33; shelfmark YK.2017.a.29. 

[3]. The recent Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House is helping to change this!

[4].  Stephen King in Stephen King's Danse Macabre. London: Futura Books, [1981]; sheflmark H.82/1022; Neil Gaiman in The New York Times, 16 July 2018; shelfmark MFM.MA3.

 

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