Published: 12 January 2016

Viewpoint: Shirley Jackson and the Haunting of Hill House

Haunting of Hill House - Credit Gary Calton

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

4.90 avg. rating (96% score) - 10 votes

One thought on “Viewpoint: Shirley Jackson and the Haunting of Hill House

  1. Paul Thomason

    As a Philosophy/English undergraduate and lifelong fan of Shirley Jackson, whom I came to, like many, via Stephen King, I was thrilled about this adaptation at the Playhouse. I’ve read the novel at least twenty times, and had high hopes for the stage version, not all of which were fulfilled. Much about the production was excellent; the stagecraft; the sets; lighting and sound effects; production design and several of the cast, especially Chipo Chung as Theo and a marvellously low-key “Mad Men”-style Luke, played by Joseph May. Collectively, their mid-50s American accents rang true, and suspension of disbelief was an easy thing, first night jitters notwithstanding.
    My problems, such as they were, centred on the adaptation’s focus – as supported by the Playhouse’s own description of the play – of the psychological thriller elements of the story. The Haunting of Hill House is not a psychological thriller, It is a haunted house story which hinges on the parasitic (or worse, symbiotic) relationship that develops between the house and Eleanor. The house itself is the antagonist of the novel, and whilst the psychology of Eleanor is essential to the narrative, it isn’t what the story is about. Tellingly, the first paragraph of the novel, which establishes in a beautifully elegant, parsimonious and, above all, chilling way, that Hill House is alive, insane, and never sleeps, is nowhere to be seen in the play. This shifts the emphasis from the constant menace of the house, watchful, predatory and hungry, to the psychodrama between the characters. Without the house as the stimulus for Eleanor’s breakdown, the pressure may as well come from the characters being stuck in any mundane survival situation. The clue is in the name. The book and play are called The Haunting of Hill House, not The Haunting of Eleanor, although it is to Miss Jackson’s credit as a superlative writer that it is never clear whether it is the house which haunts Eleanor or vice versa. The house itself, a living, insane entity, is haunted by something which may as well be described as a story as anything else. It is inhabited by its own sick narrative, and Eleanor’s repressed, confabulist, fantasist psyche makes her the ideal prey. She has a pathological need to fantasise her own life into something bigger and more exotic, to star in her very own fairy tale. The house battens onto this need like a blood-sucking tick, at first parasitically, then with the exquisite horror at the heart of the novel, with Eleanor’s willing reciprocity. Though all the characters are inside the belly of the beast, the body of the house, it is Eleanor whom the house wants to absorb. “Journeys end in lovers meeting” is the phrase Eleanor keeps repeating as she dissolves into the house’s psyche, believing it to be the fairy tale lover to her fairy tale princess. This willing symbiosis, this predatory manipulation of her fragile mentality by a thing more like a Venus’ Flytrap than a dwelling place, is where the horror of the novel lies. To reduce the monster to a mere backdrop, as this adaptation does, is akin to reducing Frankenstein’s creature to a bit-part walk-on role. It takes the haunting out of Hill House and robs the play of much of its power, stripping the play of its archetypal “bad place”, the adaio domos, and reducing Hill House to a weird place wherein the psychodrama occurs. I also questioned the necessity of the needless gross-out first act climax. There’s more than enough in the narrative to provide a climactic break point without introducing new and pointless characters, and I got the feeling that the first act’s final scene had been written purely to end the act with a bang. Not in keeping with the narrative’s slow-building horror and increasing dislocation from reality. Having said all this, I still enjoyed the play and the above would only be a problem for someone familiar with the novel and its themes in the first place. Still, as a massive fan of the novel, I can’t help but question the thinking behind writing an adaptation which is essentially Dracula without Dracula.

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