Well, the holidays are upon us, which means I’m still on Halloween. These past few weeks I’ve been absorbed with haunted houses. “The Legend of Hill House” slowly roped me in on Netflix. This, of course, led me to the 1963 film version, “The Haunting”, reading the original Shirley Jackson novel, trying desperately to pretend the god awful 1999 version of “The Haunting” was never made (I seem to recall tentacles being involved. Ghost tentacles. That’s all that needs to be said about that.), annnnd beginning work on a haunted house story of my own like I actually have time for another damn project.
So, Christmas will be postponed to mid-May this year. Halloween will be continuing into mid-March. You are welcome. (Sorry guys, I was too late to hold off Hanukkah. I hope yours was a happy one.) With that in mind, this installment of VS presents a battle between the seasonally appropriate stories found in “The Haunting of Hill House” Netflix series vs “The Haunting of Hill House” novel. (I thought about discussing “The Haunting” film as well, but it’s mostly a retelling of the novel with overly simplified characters. It’s fine, I guess, but most of what Rod Serling was doing on the Twilight Zone at that same time was much more inspired.) As always, there are no losers, I’m here to help you replace all forms of healthy social interaction with indulgence in fiction. I don’t waste time telling you about things I don’t love. No social life for you. It’ll be better that way.
Also, please wash your hands after reading this. Everyone in my house has been sick for three weeks now, and I’m pretty sure the damn virus will come for you straight through your damn phone, keyboard of what have you.
Trust me, I’m a trained nurse.
I was not, at first, enamored with the Netflix “The Haunting of Hill House” series. I watched the first episode in a spooky basement in Maine and slept like a baby. Considering I’m an anxiety ridden scaredy-cat, that’s not a promising response from me. It had its moments, but it was mostly predictable haunted house stuff that was a little heavy on the “look at this! Scary, right? RIGHT?” approach. It wasn’t awful. I just didn’t give the show a thought the next day. Or the next.
Though, here’s the thing about giant budget television shows that take their time telling one intricate story in a season…the first episode is hard. You have to introduce the story but also, not tell too much story. You have to do it with a writer’s room that can’t possibly have settled into a groove yet. Chances are, there are studio execs looking for some serious spoon feeding. Even without all that working against your first episode, imagine judging a movie by the first ten minutes. Maybe you can tell if it’s awful, but it’d be tough to recognize brilliant.
“The Haunting of Hill House” turned out to be kinda brilliant.
So, I read the book.
Pop-culture’s primary food source is itself. It eats its own tail and somehow grows larger. You tell a story today, fifteen different people retell it in different ways for the next hundred years, leading in different directions. Your story becomes a footnote to theirs. Worse, some confused souls will think your story is a weak newcomer and give the originality points to the rich range of work it inspired. (I’m looking at you every space-fantasy story for the past hundred years! You all need to apologize to John Carter of Mars for ruining his chance at a movie franchise.)
That’s my smarty pants way of explaining why, while you’ve probably come across a few better haunted house stories than Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House”, “The Shining” wouldn’t exist without it. I’m not a literary historian, but I’m as skilled at generating half-cocked hypotheses as anyone on the internet, and I say the modern haunted house story, with a house not merely full of ghosts, but with the house itself being predatory, catching people and webbing their souls into its cellars and attics, began with Shirley Jackson. The house that toys with its inhabitants, was built evil, that has a heart and, worse, a stomach, is all her.
The novel is sparse by modern standards. For my money, it feels more like a prologue than a book. It’s full of characters that I was really enjoying, but their stories all just stop when one of them makes a dramatic exit. In a modern novel it’s expected that everyone who strolls onto the page gets some kind of arc. Sometimes that seems a little trite. Life is not full of arcs, it’s full of random nonsense. Yet, whenever I read an author brave enough to just let a few things go unresolved, because few things ever resolve in life, I feel short changed.
It’s a product of its time. Readers of fiction in 1958 had different expectations. So, read it, but read it like it’s 1960. Imagine you’re Don Draper, smoking and drinking hard liquor from the bar in your office at 11 AM, reading the book everyone is talking about and hating your life.
You should also know Shirley Jackson knows how to put words together. She creates some gorgeous sentences, and they find their way into the TV series, even though it has next to nothing to do with the book. Cups of stars and showers of stones, parts of the scenery in the book. have echoes in the series. If you did take the book as a prologue, there’s no reason it couldn’t be a prologue to the series I suppose.
While the book hurries along, packed full of characters with unexplored potential, the series is on its own schedule. It has so many complex characters who look alike, you’ll have to put your phone down and pay attention to know what’s going on. It tells two primary stories. The first is the story of a family with a dream. They’ve been working toward building their “forever home” by moving all over the country and flipping houses. Hill House is, of course, their big score, and it has to go well. It doesn’t. Horribly traumatic events ensue.
The second story is about that same family decades later. The traumatized children have grown up. Guess what! They’re a mess! It never occurred to me that I wanted to see a story about the aftermath of surviving a supernatural trauma, but turns out, its fertile ground. A lot of this part of the story could be pulled out of any survivor experience. Then, just when you get a little comfortable with the situation, it shows you what’s really happening to these poor people and it is chilling.
It’s rare that I care a lot about spoilers, but I want to spoil nothing in this for anyone. The reveals are super important. Maybe don’t read any more reviews and such until you see it.
Also, brilliant doesn’t mean perfect. There are a few moments driven by the basic need to get characters from point A to point B that don’t work. (Hint to all makers of movies and TV…parents, well, good parents, don’t leave their children alone when there’s an emergency and they run super-fast towards their kids when they start screaming in terror.) They are brief, and nothing is perfect. I write. I understand.
Anyway. Go read the book and watch the show. Maybe in that order. That way you get yourself a prologue and you get to point out all the details you notice to whoever you watch it with. Who, of course, will be your cat, dog or parrot because you know better than to engage in human interaction.
Have a happy Halloween. I’ll catch up with you for a special Christmas edition of VS this May.