CLASSIC HAUNTED HOUSE NOVELS
Every house is a haunted house at one time or another.
When you’re home, alone, late at night, and you hear the creak and groan of a settling staircase or the howl of a neighborhood dog out on the prowl…when a thunderstorm cracks lightning so close you feel your hair bristle and could swear you saw something in the corner illuminated ever so briefly by the flash…even sitting quietly with a book and feeling that faint, almost imperceptible wisp of a breeze gently toss your hair. Was the staircase really settling? Could the thing in the corner be simply a rumpled shirt on a chair? Was the breeze just the AC kicking in?
Or were these things phantoms, specters of lost souls who took a different path? Perhaps a long-dead relative come to pay a visit, or an enemy from your youth, now departed and seeking revenge?
Could be any of them, couldn’t it?
And it could be just your imagination.
That same imagination is responsible for the creation of some of the greatest haunted house tales every told. Some are the product of dreams, some the product of folklore and urban legend, some were mapped out, built with layer upon layer of conjured dread—and all designed by a master of the craft who had a very specific goal: to scare you, make you afraid to turn out the light and go to sleep. And hopefully, the tale would stay with you for days, weeks, months—even years.
The lead player in my ranking of classic haunted house novels, Hell House, was considered pulp by many when it was written by Richard Matheson in 1971 and if you’re looking for sophisticated, high-brow prose, Matheson has never been the writer you should be seeking out. Matheson’s stories, screenplays, teleplays, and novels are not “art house” stuff but his success among us, the hoi polloi, speaks volumes about his ability to convey story. He was a storyteller par excellence. Hell House, in its day, was revolutionary among haunted house novels. While Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House alludes to moral outrages, Matheson is free and open in introducing them.
Plots in most haunted house novels are always fairly simple. Normally, you get a few chapters of someone expounding on “Hey—this house is haunted because something happened here and the folks involved are all dead now.” Hell House is no different. A dying, rich guy hires a parapsychologist to prove there is life after death. The investigator, in turn, hires two mediums to help him out. These three, along with the parapsychologist’s wife, journey to the Belasco House, a mansion in rural Maine where the deceased owner had engaged in any number of depravities including drugs, alcoholism, sexual misadventures, eroticism, cannibalism, and other assorted (and often specific) mayhem.
What awaits them at the house might be considered standard fare (albeit overtly sexual in some instances—a big deal in 1971), but Matheson’s ability at characterization and pacing is what sets Hell House apart. Nothing is wasted in his character-painting and nothing beats you over the head; he gives the reader a synopsis eloquent enough to flesh out the characters in your mind without painstaking description. The pacing is almost textbook perfection; a fright, possible explanations, rejections, normalcy, larger fright, etc. It builds steadily until the surprising and “never saw that coming” revelation.
I came to Hell House from the film version starring Roddy McDowell and also written by Richard Matheson. Neither incarnation should be missed. The book explains more than the film and both are thoroughly enjoyable.
Haunted House novels based (even loosely) on actual events have always held a special place in my heart. There is nothing a fan of horror likes more than actually believing in the fictitious places and characters we read about. The ability to suspend disbelief is a prime requisite for a horror fan, but to have the opportunity not to have to suspend disbelief and still be scared witless is gold. Despite claims to the contrary, The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson is based on events that occurred on the south shore of Long Island, New York. On November 13, 1974, Ronald DeFeo, Jr. shot and killed six members of his family at 112 Ocean Avenue. Thirteen months later, The Lutz family (George, Kathy, and their three children) moved into the house. Twenty-eight days later, they fled in the middle of the night—never to return. They sent a moving company to pick up their furniture and they never set foot in the house again.
The alleged experiences of the Lutz family during those 28 days are detailed in The Amityville Horror and include possible benign instances such as swarms of flies (despite it being winter) and the discovery of a secret “red room” that did not appear in blueprints (and which the family dog would not go near) to overt creepiness like the front door slamming each morning or Kathy Lutz levitating two feet off the bed while an entity beat her and caused whip marks on her chest.
Criticism and controversy over the book went on for years after it was released with lawsuits, interviews, television appearances, and magazine articles concerning the Lutzes, Jay Anson’s use of literary license, the murders, and the home itself. In fact, the controversy is one reason this book is called a “novel” instead of a biography.
Regardless of where the book falls in the spectrum, it is a scary, diabolical tale of horrifying murders with Satanic implications, attempts at exorcism and cleansing of the house, and the effect this proximity to evil (or the lingering atmosphere of evil) had on one family.
I loaned a copy of The Amityville Horror to a friend one winter. The evening he came by the cabin to return it, he walked into the living room, took it out of the pocket of his coat, and tossed it into the roaring fireplace. “That’s where this thing belongs,” he said. “I don’t even want to think about it again.”
At the time, with the book fresh in my mind, I understood the reaction.
If you ever find that a haunted house tale might not be enough for you—if the thought of a spooky-looking mansion with three bedrooms and a basement isn’t quite going to do it, I’d suggest you pick up a copy of The Shining by Stephen King. There are 142 guestrooms in The Overlook Hotel, scene of The Shining, along with a kitchen, a basement, a garage, a grand topiary, and a well-appointed bar. I’m certain something in one of these will pique your interest.
After the novel, the film, and the TV mini-series it would be a bit ridiculous to assume you don’t know about The Shining, but it is still a morbid day for us working professionals, so here we go.
Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic and fledgling novelist, takes a job as the caretaker of a Colorado mountain resort that closes during the winter because it’s impossible to access after the snows arrive. Jack, his wife Wendy, and their son Danny arrive at the Overlook Hotel and while Jack is shown his duties, Wendy and Danny accompany the hotel’s chef, Dick Halloran, through the kitchen. Halloran detects an ability in Danny—the “shining”—which he also possesses to a lesser degree. Danny and Halloran have a short, shocking/delightful telepathic conversation and immediately bond. Later, Halloran explains the shining to Danny, warns him of things he “might” see and warns him to stay away from Room 217 which, for a little kid, is like giving him the key and pointing him in the direction. Danny is the first to see ghosts, but he’s a trooper—he’s not going to tell his parents and upset their apple cart. Gradually, though, the spirits of the dead make their existence known to Jack in a big way.
According to King, he and his wife Tabitha checked into the Stanley Hotel in Colorado for a one night stay and were the only guests at the hotel that night. King let his imagination take over and while they had the run of the place, he claims to have had the feeling they weren’t alone. He further claims to have seen child-ghosts in the hallways and even witnessed a grand party taking place in the MacGregor ballroom of the hotel. Keeping in mind that King did not dry out until the late 1980s, there is a possibility these visions were fueled by substance abuse, but who can say?
What we can say with certainty is that The Shining is an achievement in the haunted house story that transcends much of what came before it and is so good it almost defies attempts at reviewing it. Being able to hate Jack Torrance one minute, sympathize with him the next, cheer him on for a time, and then wish him the worst while still hoping for his redemption showcases King’s ability to humanize a character in full. Jack Torrance isn’t a character in a book—he’s a guy you know. Maybe a few guys you know. And Wendy Torrance—you know her, too. And Dick Halloran. And even the officious, little prick Stuart Ullman, general manager of the Overlook. I’m betting you’ve probably worked for him or a female counterpart at one time or another.
The effects of The Overlook on Jack, Wendy, and Danny interplay like magic. Jack’s gradual descent is steady, marked by prominent, unforgettable occurrences, and punctuated by family interaction that is both heart-wrenching and understandable.
The high point of The Shining, when Danny reaches out to Dick Halloran for help, is pulled off in what might be the most exciting clump of prose in modern horror literature. It’s like watching “Helen Keller Goes To The Rosebowl” or whatever “feel-good” film is the current cinema tear-jerker favorite except that the reader knows all hell is getting ready to break loose and woe be unto anybody who gets in the way. It’s the “here comes my big brother” moment—a Kingesque feature if ever there was one, and it works every time.
Having defiled Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House by putting Matheson’s Hell House in front of it, the coward’s way out is to explain that all horror is subjective. A subjective opinion cannot be defended—it’s like when somebody doesn’t like chocolate. Ditto with horror. If I had to have one haunted house book on a desert island, it’d be The Haunting of Hill House because it’s more than a haunted house book. Shirley Jackson’s prose and her plotting is head and shoulders above Richard Matheson’s and I think he probably would have agreed with that. I like Hell House better than The Haunting of Hill House even through the former “borrows” outlandishly from the latter, but the degree to which I like it more is hardly a degree at all.
And yeah, I said it. Hell House is a rip-off of Hill House. A scientist, a couple of mediums, and a mansion where all sorts of bad stuff happened. Sound familiar?
But where Hell House is simplistic in both design and prose, The Haunting of Hill House is complex and erudite. Where characters are plain and ordinary in Hell House, they are extraordinary in The Haunting of Hill House. The subtlety Shirley Jackson uses with the plot and the interaction of the characters smacks of quality literature. Where Matheson scared you, Jackson terrifies you. Where Matheson’s scares are overt and intended, Jackson’s terrors are covert, tiny, and compounded, one upon another, to force you into leaving the nightlight burning.
Where The Haunting of Hill House excels is in two completely necessary elements: characterization and elegance of story.
There are several secondary characters in the novel that lend a bit of levity, a bit of background, and some psychic machinations. The Dudley’s, caretakers of Hill House, are good for a laugh and Mrs. Montague, a self-important bitch with a flair for psychic folderol, is a lot of fun to hate. The character Luke is both light and dark; an enigma never quite understood. The house’s interest in Eleanor or the subtly implied back story—Eleanor’s need for attention—is never resolved and eternally interesting. The slow process of the relationship between Theodora and Eleanor is at once tense and suspicious.
The reader is never confronted with unpolished plot twists because the twists that do exist do so in a carefully and well-placed fashion—damn near undetectable.
Despite two film adaptations and a stage play, The Haunting of Hill House is undergoing yet another adaptation—this time on Netflix and headlined by Timothy Hutton. Watch for it. It can’t be anything but watchable.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is one of those books everyone thinks they’ve read, but upon reflection they decide they’ve only seen one of the adaptations. It’s been adapted to opera. It was a ballet twice. It was a film. It was a Broadway play, it was a film again. Then it was a film again. Then it was a TV movie. Then it was a film five more times. Then it was four different soap operas on daytime television. It’s even been re-written nine times including re-workings by none other than Peter Straub and Joyce Carol Oates.
Evidently, The Turn of the Screw’s got something going for it.
What it’s got going for it is a creepy ghost story featuring adorable children—something for which we’re all suckers. Stick a ghost in a houseful of adults and we’re all, “Yeah, yeah, get on with it…” but put a sweet, little girl and boy in the house—two little darlings who wouldn’t hurt a fly—and then we’re ready to fight phantoms, zombies, vampires, and ghouls armed with only an electric toothbrush and good intentions.
The Turn of the Screw is written in manuscript format, penned by the governess of two children who lived in a country home in Essex. The children’s guardian, an uncle, gives the governess complete control over the children via a letter—he is not to be annoyed by any correspondence about them at all. Out of sight, out of mind. Shortly after arriving at the home, the governess begins to see a man and woman she doesn’t recognize on the estate grounds. None of the staff speak to them—they walk around as if they’re invisible—as if the governess is the only one who can see them. In conversation with the housekeeper, the governess learns that the former governess had an affair with the groundskeeper and that both of these workers were very fond of the children. Both the former governess and the groundskeeper are, by the way, no longer among the living.
When the governess becomes convinced the children are speaking to and communing with the ghosts of the two deceased household workers, she decides to shield the children from the supernatural happenings, but the fun begins well before this decision is made.
Henry James, while not translating too well to my generation and certainly not to generations after mine (sadly, there are several) was a master storyteller. He loved a good ghost story but wasn’t knocked out with what he was seeing among contemporaries. In fact, The Turn of the Screw, written from the point of view of the governess, was one of the original, first-person narratives in the sub-genre. James thought this literary device would better convey the concept of ghosts and the supernatural being real to his readers as opposed to imaginary characters dismissed as “a bit of under-done potato” as Dickens’ Scrooge claimed.
As with The Haunting of Hill House, the reader is left to determine whether the ghosts and the hauntings existed in the minds of the affected or if they were real visitations—supernatural, outward, semi-visible forces acting on chosen individuals for an intended purpose. The characterization is decidedly 19th century (the novel was published on the cusp of the 20th century), but the atmosphere, suspense, and psychological horror is as up-to-date as anything you’re likely to pick up today.
I’d like to throw in a few honorable mentions, if I may. A few of these have not been published yet; I was able to read them prior to publication because I’m a juror for a major literary award this year (can’t say which one—for some bizarre reason, the rules prohibit it).
If you haven’t read any of the books mentioned in this article, I’d honestly recommend you put them in your TBR (to-be-read) pile and give them a shot. They have served me well and you won’t be disappointed.
The Green Man – Kingsley Amis
Bag of Bones – Stephen King
Ghost Story – Peter Straub
A Stir of Echoes – Richard Matheson
The Siren and the Specter – Jonathan Janz
The House by the Cemetery – John Everson
Don Gillette is the author of three novels, Pandemonium, Phantom Dead Man, and Sarcophagus; a collection of short fiction, Old Leather; three poetry collections, Bourbon Street Memory, Walking By The Nightpath, and the critically acclaimed The Face In The Mirror Is Not Mine.
The Meeker Collection: Humor from The Wilson County Advocate 1991-1994, chronicles his independent newspaper work and he has also published short fiction, editorials, and literary articles for The Journal of American Folklore, Criticism Literati, Janus Head and other lesser known periodicals.
His latest book, Fallen Angels, is a collaboration with artist Don Gilbert. This full-size collection of drawings and poems details the existence of fallen angels—supernatural beings responsible for all events in our lives.
A fourth novel, Dark Voices, is scheduled for release in early 2019.
You can follow Don on twitter @dongillette
To find out more about Don, please visit his official website www.dongillette.com
You can visit Don’s author page here
Fallen Angels is a collaboration between author Don Gillette and artist Don Gilbert.
It is a collection of poems and accompanying drawings detailing the existence of the fallen angels–beings responsible for every facet of our lives from birth to death and everything in between.
Whatever happens to you, good or bad, a fallen angel is responsible. Wherever you go, there is a fallen angel there to control your life. Your first day of school, your first kiss, your last breath; a fallen angel is responsible. Some are good, some are not. Some are caring, some are not.
They have no conscience and they have no soul.
Once the darling of New York art insiders, Gene Carney’s well has run dry. On the advice of his agent, he decides on a cross-country trip to “clear his head.” The trip leads him through Pulliam, his old hometown, where things went… wrong… years ago. And with Gene’s return, things begin to go wrong again.
An experimental novella following events in the life of Conrad Ritley, an average everyman suffering from the inability to keep times and places in chronological order.
Political Funnies from the pages of the defunct Wilson County Advocate, a local weekly newspaper that enjoyed a brief but fiercely loyal readership from 1991 until 1993 in Middle Tennessee. This volume contains all of the articles published under the pseudonym “Jimmy Joe Meeker” – the loud-mouthed, often-angry, sometimes-insightful, but always amusing alter-ego of Don Gillette. Founded on a whim, and never taken too seriously (especially by its founders), The Advocate prided itself on exposing the dirty laundry of small-time politicians and railing against the injustice in small-town government.