Welcome to Comfort Notch. You’ll never want to leave… Following the death of her estranged mother, Kat Somerville and her daughter, Sybil, flee a difficult life in Chicago for the quaint–and possibly pernicious–town of Comfort Notch, New Hampshire – hoping to fit in. But the town’s obscure history and strange customs make it a struggle, leading to a shocking confrontation. Gruesome truths are revealed, sacrifices are made, and life in Comfort Notch bursts into flames. By New York Times bestselling author Daniel Kraus & star artist Chris Shehan! AVAILABLE NOW!
Hey there horror fans, I’m Jessica Avery and I’ll be delivering your weekly brief of all that’s ghastly and grim in the world of Horror. Whether you’re looking for a backlist book that will give you the willies, a terrifying new release, or the latest in horror community news, you’ll find it here in The Fright Stuff.
62 years ago, in October of 1959, Viking Press published the first edition of Shirley Jackson’s quintessential ghost story The Haunting of Hill House, a novel now so familiar to horror readers that I’d be willing to bet most of us can quote at least part of its iconic opening paragraph from memory. I was on a plane back from the West Coast the first time I read Hill House. I spent the first half of that flight so consumed that I forgot I was even on a plane, and by the time I was done I’m pretty sure those opening lines were permanently tattooed on my brain.
In Laura Miller’s introduction to the 2006 Penguin Classics edition, she describes classic ghost stories like Hill House as being traps for their protagonists, luring them in by virtue of their own curiosity (ix). I mean, how many times when watching a horror movie have you caught yourself shouting at the main character to stop opening all the damn creepy doors? Right? It’s because we know. We know that if you give in to the nervous impulse to open door after door, drawn on by the “what if”s— “what if there’s something there”, “what if that sound I heard was real”, “what if that little voice in the back of my head was right”— the haunting in the house will pull you in too deep. Because you have to know! You have to know all the bad things that might be behind the door, because if you don’t find them then you know they’ll find you first. So it’s just “what if” over and over, door after door, until you’re trapped. Until none of the doors you left open behind you lead out.
On my first read through, I picked up on the anxious, trapped feeling that permeates The Haunting of Hill House (it’s hard to miss), but at the time I didn’t make a connection to my own struggles with anxiety over the years. I just knew that I deeply empathized with Eleanor, and the struggle against the pull of Hill House which ultimately consumed her. Eleanor was a dreamer, insulating herself in fantasy against the threat of “absolute reality,” keeping the world at bay with dreams to escape from her fears and anxieties from the trauma of being emotionally abused and neglected by her own family for years. But Hill House, as we are told, is “not sane.” It cannot dream. It is an amphitheater of absolute reality with an entrance like a lobster trap; one way in, no way out. Poor Eleanor and her dream world never really stood a chance.
Whether you choose to believe that the house is haunted, or that, as Miller suggests in her introduction, Eleanor may herself be the “whatever” haunting in Hill House, is a matter of opinion left up to the individual reader. The novel is open ended enough to let us make our own decisions. I think it’s a bit of both. I’ve always believed that Hill House is “not sane”, as we’re told, but that the only ghosts within its walls are those its visitors bring with them. Amphitheaters are designed to amplify, after all. So the “what if” you find behind the closed door is more likely to be a phantom of your own making than a ghost in the literal sense.
Speaking from personal experience, “whatever walked there, walked alone” is pretty much exactly what the inside of my head feels like when I’m panicking. Haunted but alone, caught in the echo chamber of my own anxieties. But then, Shirley Jackson was very well acquainted with what it feels like to live with anxiety. So if Hill House‘s claustrophobic tension bears an echo of that oh so familiar tight, twisting in the chest and throat that a particularly good spike of anxiety can cause, well, rightly so.
But that’s the beauty of horror, isn’t it? We talk often about the catharsis of watching or reading horror, the way that just the right book or movie can help us cope with the horrors of real life or the monsters in our own heads. However, re-reading The Haunting of Hill House recently reminded me that horror is also the way in which we communicate our fears to others to see if perhaps those fears and anxieties are shared. Whether as an author putting their story out into the world, or a reader recommending their favorite books to other readers, we want to share the things that frighten us, and find others who feel the same. I mean, it makes sense! When it comes to haunted houses, ghosts, monsters, or masked killers, there’s always strength in numbers.
So a very happy 62nd birthday, to a genuinely frightening book whose horrors never fade with age! The Haunting of Hill House permanently transformed the haunted house narrative, and for that this anxious horror reader is eternally grateful.
For more on The Haunting of Hill House, check out these excellent articles:
Speaking of Laura Miller, you can read part of her introduction on LitHub!
Annika Barranti Klein at Book Riot wrote a fantastic deep dive into the first line of the novel (2019), and Lee Mandelo explored the novel’s queerness, and the theme of isolation which runs throughout, for Tor (2016).
Also for Tor, but a bit more recently, last September Anne M. Pillsworth and Ruthanna Emrys included Hill House in their Reading the Weird series, and wrote a series of responses to the text, the first of which is linked here (2020). Beware of spoilers if you haven’t read the book yet! Each response begins with a summary of the portion of book being discussed.
Fresh From the Skeleton’s Mouth
Nightfire’s “Out for Blood” Queer Horror Panel, featuring Cassandra Khaw (Nothing But Blackened Teeth), Zin E Rocklyn (Flowers for the Sea), and Lee Mandelo (Summer Sons), is this Thursday the 21st! If you have a chance to tune in at 7PM (ET), you definitely should. All three of these books are amazing.
Tananarive Due wrote an article for Novel Suspects “On Horror and the Creations that Shape Us”, in which she discusses Black Horror, how she developed her love of horror, and the recent reissue of her novel The Between.
Last but definitely not least, Margaret Kingsbury has put together a list of 21 must read new and upcoming horror novels for Buzzfeed, so get out those reading lists and a pen, people!
As always, you can catch me on twitter at @JtheBookworm (https://twitter.com/JtheBookworm), where I try to keep up on all that’s new and frightening.