School of the Arts undergraduate, Catherine Tully, has been reflecting on the author Shirley Jackson and her play, The Haunting of Hill House, which is currently being showcased at The Playhouse in Liverpool:
“Shirley Jackson is perhaps not a household name but should certainly be familiar to those interested in gothic literature. She wrote esteemed classic novels such as The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, as well as The Lottery, one of the most celebrated short stories in the English language. Jackson’s writing style is filled with tension and mystery, and her work continues to be a major influence on writers such as Steven King today.
“The Haunting of Hill House, published in 1959 is still considered by many to be one of the most effective ghost stories of the 20th Century. English Literature lecturer, Dr Simon Marsden discusses Shirley Jackson stating she “sits in a tradition of psychological ghost stories in which the haunted house is used to explore the psychological frailties and contradictions of the people within it; it’s a tradition that goes back to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw”.
“He also explained that ghost stories “make familiar places unfamiliar to us” and can also, “complicate our responses as readers, because we’re not sure whether our response to the ghost should be fear, sympathy or both at the same time”.
“Jackson’s Hill House achieves this complication. The novel plays with the reader’s emotions as they consider whether to pity or fear the heroine, Eleanor. Even her physical and mental state is unclear to the reader. Dr Simon Marsden said: “I think the ambiguities surrounding the central characters are a big part of the story’s strength. We see Eleanor constantly reinventing her own backstory and stealing snippets of other people’s lives, so even though the story is told from her perspective we never really get to know her very well. This allows Jackson to manipulate our responses to Eleanor: she doesn’t fall neatly into a category of victim or villain, so we have to constantly examine our feelings about her and about her treatment by the other characters”.
“There has recently been a resurgence of interest in The Haunting of Hill House as it is currently being showcased at The Playhouse in Liverpool. The novel has been adapted by Anthony Neilson who has chosen to explore the fragility of a haunted mind. The play transports the audience into the landscape of the novel with its thunderous soundscape and ominous dark stage which is accompanied by glaringly bright lights that beam out disguising set changes whilst disorientating viewers. The shapeshifting Hill House is brought to life as the shadows hide the double revolves of the stage as it moves creating a fantastical maze of corridors and slamming doors. The stage is complimented by a wondrous array of projections which aid in constructing the distorting walls and the indistinct rooms of the set.
“The cast too play a tremendous role in the allusion of the haunting, aiding the viewer’s exploration into both the rational thoughts of the more cynical characters and also the minds of the unstable victims in the story. Although the adaptation varies slightly from Jackson’s novel, Neilson has remained true to many of the most treasured elements of the book. Akin to readers, theatre goers spend their time on the edge of their seat, waiting for disturbing events to occur. Dr Simon Marsden states that although “Jackson wasn’t the first writer to recognise the effectiveness of holding an audience in suspense, she was a master of the technique”.
The Haunting of Hill House is currently on stage at The Playhouse theatre in Liverpool until Saturday, 16 January 2016.
Photo credit: Gary Calton