Ruth Franklin on Shirley Jackson, Part Three

The Haunting of Hill House was a financial and critical triumph. A month before the publication date of October 16, 1959 – appropriately close to Halloween – Viking ran an unusual announcement in The New York Times, generating advance sales of about eight thousand copies and considerable buzz. Though there was the usual wonderment at Jackson’s dual writing personas, reviewers responded far more enthusiastically than they had to any of her previous novels. Some treated it as little more than a particularly well-written horror tale.

In The New York Times, Orville Prescott – often one of Jackson’s more skeptical critics – called it ‘the most spine-chilling ghost story I have read since I was a child,’ although he was unsure whether she intended it to be ‘taken seriously’ or had simply designed it ‘to give delicious tremors to readers who delight in one of the oldest varieties of folk tale.’

Some thought the book was too obviously Freudian: Time opened its piece with the snide line ‘When busy Housewife Shirley Jackson finds time for a new novel, she instinctively begins to id-lib.’ Jackson professed to think this was hilarious, claiming she had ‘never read more than ten pages of Freud,’ though she later invoked him regarding Castle.

But most critics recognized that Hill House was, as the Providence Journal’s reviewer put it, ‘a strong and scary parable of the haunted mind’ in the vein of Hawthorne, Poe, or James.

— Excerpt from Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life
(New York: Liveright, 2016), p. 424.

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