Author and historical consultant on witchcraft and magic

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

Nov 28, 2023 | Blog

An oldie, but a goodie, Shirley Jackson’s 1959 short novel can still send a shiver down the spine. Jackson believed in ghosts but she also believed in human delusion and she thought that might actually be more frightening than supernatural spirits. The Haunting of Hill House is about both kinds of threat.

Eleanor, Theodora and Luke each have something to escape and choose a haunted house as their getaway. It’s only for a few nights. Eleanor flees her judgemental sister and the memory of her needy mother. Theodora walks out after tensions with a lover who, it’s strongly hinted, is a woman. Dilettante Luke finds purpose in welcoming guests to his abandoned family mansion. The three blithely join the psychic investigator Dr Montague in his study of Hill House, and at first they enjoy a freedom beyond the oppressions of 1950s American life.

But with its creepy housekeeper and maze-like rooms the house is a classic gothic trap. Violent events bewilder the visitors, until neither they nor readers are sure what’s real. Are there timeslips and poltergeists or just malicious pranks? Will the guests’ bantering and flirtations last? Will all of them survive Hill House? The reader follows Eleanor, wistful and envious, in her search for happiness freed from her mother’s grip. Jackson teases readers with beautifully evoked symbols from her fantasies of adult living: stone lions on the drive, white cats in the window, splashes of nail polish on her toes (or is it blood?) The novel’s 50s themes of hysteria and repression are familiar, because Jackson blazed a much-followed literary trail. Her psychological set pieces and disintegrating relationships are now staples of horror film and might or might not surprise or scare you. But definitely don’t read the book on your own in the dark.

Recent Blog Posts

Cecily, by Annie Garthwaite

The claim that Cecily is “Wolf Hall for the 2020s” is a big one. The best and rarest thing about Hilary Mantel’s novels telling the story of Thomas Cromwell and his world was their immersive detail. Mantel combined the precision of meticulous research with the...

What She’s Having: Stories of Women and Food, by Dear Damsels

Themed anthologies can feel like a gamble for the reader. Some recycle random literary bric-a-brac – old, quirky or famous, perhaps, although reading like a scrapbook of clippings. But the Dear Damsels collective have a wiser approach, looking forward to new writing...

Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch, by Rivka Galchen

Written from the viewpoint of Katharina Kepler, “seventy-some” years old and accused of witchcraft in seventeenth-century Germany, Rivka Galchen’s 2021 novel is a surprise because it’s often very funny. That’s because Katharina is a spiky, blunt narrator, endearingly...

“One Meggs a Baker” – a male “witch”

On page 6 of his The Discovery of Witches (1647) the young English witchfinder Matthew Hopkins sneeringly recounts an anecdote about a Norfolk baker named Meggs. He’s using this man as an illustration of the behaviour of some of the people drawn into the 1645-7 witch...

Birdcage Walk, by Helen Dunmore

Birdcage Walk is set in Bristol, England during the French Revolution. Then as now, Bristol was home to lively debate about the rights and wrongs of political life. In the 1780s-1790s there was a particular focus on the rights of women to hold property, access...

Fall of a Sparrow, by Sam Benady and Mary Chiappe

Historical fiction is a varied genre. There are novels in which characters from the 1600s twitter gratingly in twenty-first century cliches. There are novels that monologue worthily through true-but-dull facts and where every sentence needs a footnote. And then there...

Marion’s Latest Book

The Witches of St. Osyth: Persecution, Murder and Betrayal in Elizabethan England

The Witches of St. Osyth: Persecution, Murder and Betrayal in Elizabethan England

Books
(Cambridge University Press, 2022)
Read More

Contact Marion

via her agents for information on her availability for historical consulting and writing opportunities