There’s so much more to a book than just the reading. — Maurice Sendak
Those of us who are compulsive readers are always searching for the latest, greatest author although experience teaches that just because a book is on the New York Times bestseller list doesn’t guarantee you will love it, nor does the recommendation of librarians or friends, even if they know you well.
Then there’s that rare experience of being so completely pulled into a story that you lose all sense of self — the process of absorbing a character, locale or a series of events that essentially turns you into a different person, at least for the length of immersion in the book. I recently had that rare experience.
One of those ubiquitous lists of Books to Read Before You Die popped up on Facebook and I scanned the titles, hoping to find something I hadn’t already read and loved, or had read and deeply regretted so I wouldn’t have to waste my time. One grabbed my attention, I guess because I didn’t expect to see a horror story included: “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson. It sounded vaguely familiar and a quick google quest confirmed it. I hadn’t read the book, but definitely remembered seeing a movie called “The Haunting” based on Shirley’s book.
The movie came out in 1963 starring Julie Harris, Claire Bloom and the rather dubious casting of Russ Tamblyn. I’ve always loved scary movies and convinced a friend to go with me to be terrified together. Halfway through the film, she covered her eyes, as though it wasn’t sufficiently safe just to close them against the frightening images on the screen.
My online search also revealed there was a remake of the movie in 1999 starring Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones and the indubitably dubious casting of Owen Wilson. I don’t know how I missed seeing that version, since I’m a huge Liam Neeson fan, but probably just as well since it was also noted as one of the Ten Worst Movie Remakes of all Time.
I picked up a copy of the book at the library and settled into my favorite chair, ready to be transported. Flipping through the flyleaf pages, I noticed a jagged yellowing on the edges, accompanied by a musty odor. That perfectly set the scene and the opening paragraph clinched the deal: “Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within . . . and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
Shirley Jackson, whom I’d never heard of, was evidently well-respected in the Gothic horror tradition. Stephen King, whom I have voraciously read for decades, was an admirer, claiming her as a significant influence. Even her memoir about her children, a delightful family chronicle, had the sinister title “Raising Demons.” Sadly, Shirley died six years after the release of “Hill House,” at the young age of 48.
I won’t give away the story, which is beset by tenebrous psychic phenomena, increasingly eerie disturbances, one scene involving hand holding that was truly creepy, and cumulative madness. You see, it wasn’t only the house that was “not sane.”