The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Haunting of Hill House

A still from Robert Wise's film 'The Haunting' based on Jackson's novel.

Why This Book

It’s hard to find a better horror novel than Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House.”  I try to find them and even try to write them but usually end up with stories so stiff that the only thing they can compete with is Shirley Jackson’s corpse.  If you ever plan on writing horror or currently write horror, read Shirley Jackson if you haven’t already.  You’ll be floored.  The least you could do is take something from “The Haunting of Hill House” back to your own horror novel.  You’ll be a better writer for it.

Editor Victoria Mixon recently posted a blog on the five things she learned from Shirley Jackson that captures why Ms. Jackson was a master in this field.  If you’re a writer, you need to read this post.  Here’s a sample of Mixon’s ideas that really hit home for my own writing:

  • “The key to increasing tension is adding elements over time.”  Brilliant.  After reading this, I immediately went back to the working outline of my novel and noted places where scenes could use additional points of conflict.  I didn’t do this near the beginning.  I want that as clear as possible.  Establish the main conflict at the outset and only bring in tension as the story progresses.  Awesome.  I think of the way J.K. Rowling did this in many of her scenes.  We’re always aware of the main conflict of each book, but she’ll weave in points of tension along the way – why is a black dog trailing Harry Potter?  Why is Malfoy such a pain in the ass?  Why is Hagrid in trouble?  All of these conflicts intertwine with the main story thread so that the tension is palpable through every book.  But make sure you’re able to keep track of the conflicts.  According to a few sources, Ms. Rowling kept very detailed outline notes so that she could keep track of how things played out.
  • “Humor pushes past the reader’s defense.”  In “Danse Macabre,” Stephen King writes that humor and horror are closely connected.  Sometimes when things are too horrible in stories, we laugh because we’re afraid.  It’s strange.  I like how Mixon takes this further by suggesting that writers use it as an element in story.  When tension is cranked up, bring in a counter-point.  Spin something humorous into the situation, but only if it rings true with the characters.  Some people crack jokes in the most horrific of situations because they can’t take the tension.  But, like Mixon warns, dark humor is hard to pull off.  Try it in a scene and see if it works.

What Do You Think?

3 Responses to “The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson”

  1. Pete Denton

    Great post. Thanks for the recommendation of the book. I’ll have to see if I can check it out. I agree about dripping the tension into a story. The little details need to start slowly and build to the climax.

    Reply
  2. Mike Mitchell

    Pete, it’s an exceptional book, even if horror and thrillers aren’t your favorite. You’ll have to let me know what you think when you get a chance to read it.

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting! Much appreciated.

    Mike

    Reply

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