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Don’t tell Shirley Jackson I said this, but I enjoy The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons more than The Haunting of Hill House. (I once told Shirley that her deviled eggs were a little on the plain side and she threw a rock at me.)

But since this is just you and me, let’s refill our cocktails, settle next to the fire, and get f’reals.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley JacksonI was disappointed the first time I read Hill House. Not by the writing—certainly not because of the writing: Shirley Jackson could straight up write.

No bones about it, I’m a better writer for having read Hill House.

(And the marvel that is “The Lottery”—I say again, Shirley Jackson could put the words together.)

Hill House opens brilliantly:

“…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.”

Talk about goosebumps on top of goosebumps.

But between these first pages and the climax, things get a bit plain, a bit dull.

May I speak frank?

The Haunting of Hill House… not scary?

Hill House is not scary. While the mood of the novel is spot on (you can see the layers of dust and shadows moving and hear all the creaks and moans), it does not, in itself, translate to terror.

And hell, House’s blueprint of researchers/scientists/seekers/people that decide/must/chose to spend a few nights in the house because it is haunted is a winning set of plans that have been followed by so many other builders, even today, fifty-four years later.

But it ain’t scary.

Fifty-four years ago, curled up on the white chaise lounge, drinking a Pim’s cup, and reading by the dim illumination of a Tiffany lamp, those goosebumps created on the first page might have kept on marching right up the back of the reader’s neck.

But not today.

Not only does the middle drag, Jackson keeps her characters an arms length away. We don’t relate to, or recognize, the characters.

On the flip side, the movie adaptation of Hill House, called The Haunting, still produces fright. The movie builds and horrifies throughout: the knocks, the thumps, the breathing walls and who’s holding my hand? The movie capitalizes on our fears where the novel falls short.

Published in 1978, Anne Rivers Siddons novel, The House Next Door, however, still produces horror.

The House Next Door

Unlike Hill House, Next Door starts off clunky:

“People like us don’t appear in People Magazine.”

In fact, the writing of Next Door is not anywhere near the same level as Shirley Jackson’s (and who amongst us can lay claim to such a distinction?)

There is something fun about the beginning of the novel, though. I couldn’t help but visualize a chic 70′s film, with all the great clothes, colors, and everyone sporting semi-glazed patine of alcohol across their eyeballs.

The premise alone is enough to read on: What about the people who live next door to a haunted house? What’s going on with them?

The House Next Door by Anne Rivers SiddonsSimply a brilliant idea.

In an era when suburbia was taking root, Siddons struck right to the heart of the matter: who, or what, lives next door?

The fun, the style, the premise, draws you further and further into Siddons’ trap.

And it is a trap, for when the horror begins, it is real and visceral and ever mounting.

Siddons herself, very much like the young architect of the haunted house “next door,” realized soon enough while writing the novel that things were wrong.

Anne Siddons: “About a third of the way through (writing The House Next Door) the writing ceased to be fun and became something as oppressive to me as it was obsessive; I realized I was into something vast and terrible and not at all funny…” (From the introduction to “The Stephen King’s Horror Library” edition of The House Next Door).

It is interesting to me that, like the ploy used by the haunted house of her novel, Siddons was lured into her own story, thinking that she was writing something fun and vibrant.

Lucky for us, Siddons held onto her sanity and finished the book.

The horror in her novel grows–you don’t even notice it at first—but when you climb to the last ‘story’ and the true horror of what has been building is revealed, it is with a grim nod that you read on, carrying a new understanding of where you stand and what was built.

NOTE: Do not watch the 2006 Lifetime movie of The House Next Door… unless you enjoy bad movies, really bad movies, and then, only after the box of wine has been punctured and half empty.

BJ Burrow co-wrote the screenplay to the SyFy movie The Monster Hunter (starring David Carradine). The Changed (from Apex Publications) is his first novel. He lives in Austin, TX, with his wife Melissa and two daughters. Visit him on the web at www.bjburrow.net. He is proud of winning his fantasy football league four out of ten times. He is currently working on his second novel.

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2 Comments

  1. Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House was one of the most terrifying pieces of psychological horror I’ve ever read. One of Jackson’s gifts was the ability to expose and describe everyday horrors, like the emotional and behavioral traps that many women, like Eleanor, fall into.

    I find that MUCH more horrifying than a few bumps, bangs, and bleeding rooms.

  2. Thank you, Jude! Good points you make. For whatever reason, Eleanor didn’t resonate with me–and without that attachment to the characters, for me, the novel’s horrifying aspects fell flat. But it makes me happy that you enjoyed it–in fact, something I didn’t mention in the piece, was that I always felt disappointed that I didn’t enjoy the book like everyone else.

    I think another reason The House Next Door worked so well for me: I picked it up with absolutely no expectations and was tremendously pleased at the ‘find.’

    And, once again, thank you for reading me.

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