Learning my Lines: The Haunting of Hill House

by Dan Stout


One of the most powerful tools available to writers is the ability to read and study the work of those who have gone before. For me, hand copying and examination can reveal the techniques that another author uses to connect with the reader. I've written up some of these observations to share with other readers & writers.

Today's excerpt is from one of the greatest and certainly the most influential of 20th century horror novels, Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House."  

The story opens with the following paragraph:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
— The Haunting of Hill House

So what do we see in this intro, besides the fact that Ms. Jacksonwasn't afraid of the semicolon?

It certainly sets a mood. Hill House is named, and established as definitely Not Sane. Jackson tells us this outright, and then juxtaposes that lack of sanity with a description of a perfectly orderly setting. But because she begins with the implication that the building is in some way alive, this orderly setting is a mere veil over something otherworldly and dangerous. 
Have upright walls, firm bricks, and sensibly shut doors ever seemed so menacing?

Jackson also packs a surprising amount of information in this short paragraph. In the process of delivering a creepy intro, we also learn the house's setting (among the hills) its age (eighty years) and the condition and nature of its materials (wood, brick, and stone).  We also get hints to the nature of the story we're about to read, in the circular rhythms of the language and the symmetrical description of the house's age and possible future.  

The amazing thing is the effortless way all that information flows from the page.  It would have been so easy to write up a beat-by-beat description of the house, or to save it for later in the book. But Jackson didn't choose that more traveled path. Instead she strides onto the first page,  cracks her knuckles as she hunkers down, and tells us, "Now this is gonna be a story."  And because she does that with skill and artistry, Jackson has assured the reader that they can relax; they're in the hands of a true storyteller.

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By the end of the first paragraph, she's given us enough of a peek that those who don't for such stories can hop off. But for the rest of us, it's time to buckle in and enjoy the ride. It's a brilliant opening, and one which I still return to for inspiration.

by Dan Stout