I’ve read The Haunting of Hill House (Penguin Classics) by Shirley Jackson perhaps a half-dozen times. I’ve never re-read any other novel so frequently, though there are short stories I’ve re-read that many times.
I used it to create an intensive reading course for 7th and 8th graders who read above grade level. I was asked to choose a genre the kids had not studied (ghost story) and to pick a book I was passionate about and something deep enough but not too difficult for smart middle-schoolers. It seemed a natural fit.
There’s a lot of persiflage. Jackson’s wit is sharp, keener even than Dorothy Parker in my opinion. The kids got frustrated because there’s a lot of build-up; the first half of the novel, in fact, is all an introduction to Eleanor’s back story and her internal reality–there are no manifestations or hauntings or supernatural events at all. I worked through it with the kids by focusing them on Eleanor’s vulnerabilities, and what they might entail for someone moving into a malignant atmosphere. We also discussed poltergeists and Eleanor’s youthful association with them, and what that might entail. Theo, too, has special gifts–how might Hill House use the character’s gifts?
When the shit hits the fan in the novel, the kids started to realize how important it was to be intimately familiar with Eleanor’s fragile grip on reality, her isolation, her immaturity, her single-minded duty to a controlling consciousness. She is the perfect sacrificial victim for Hill House. They were very interested in the similarities between Eleanor’s plight and the plight of the suicidal companion who’d hanged herself in the library, and with the two combative sisters who fought over the inheritance. We also had great discussions about Theo’s psychic abilities–did Eleanor write on the walls herself with chalk and red ectoplasm? Did a poltergeist she didn’t understand do these things without her conscious knowledge to get revenge on other characters, or to lash out?
I have a couple weeks remaining to tie up the book–we’ll watch Robert Wise’s film version and do some comparing/contrasting of approach. The kids will use musical instruments to convey mood and events of a scene from the novel. I may bring up Theo’s lesbianism, which is easy to miss on a first read, but which is present in the text and even in the 1960’s film.
Then I will remind the kids that they’ve read Jackson before–we read “The Lottery” last year!