Pat Stacey: Netflix is messing with a horror classic with The Haunting of Hill House series
Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, the inspiration for a 10-part Netflix series of the same name available from tomorrow, is one of the most famous literary ghost stories of all, and unquestionably one of the scariest and most influential.
Stephen King regards it as one of the finest horror novels of the late 20th century, and a seminal influence on his own work. His marvellous 1981 non-fiction book Danse Macabre, about horror fiction across the decades in print, radio, TV, film and comics, contains a lengthy review of it.
The spirit of Jackson’s novel tingles through countless King short stories and novels, not least The Shining, with its haunted hotel setting, and Salem’s Lot, in which the notorious Marsten House, sitting atop a hill overlooking the titular town, acts as a magnet for evil — in this instance an ancient vampire and his human familiar.
Many other writers have also acknowledged Jackson’s influence, including Neil Gaiman and Peter Straub, and the late Nigel Kneale and Richard Matheson — another of King’s formative favourites and the author of the classic I Am Legend.
Like Jackson’s book, Matheson’s 1971 novel Hell House, which was turned into the 1973 film The Legend of Hell House, also focuses on a group of paranormal investigators checking out a mansion infested with supernatural forces. It’s virtually impossible, in fact, to find any haunted house story that doesn’t owe a debt to Jackson’s tale.
With Halloween just around the corner, Netflix is plainly banking on The Haunting of Hill House becoming this year’s Stranger Things. Frankly, this is worrying.
As a lifelong fan of good horror fiction, whether in print, on screen or on the radio (BBC Radio 4’s 2015 adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s 70s TV classic The Stone Tape proved that what’s heard can be as frightening as what’s seen), Jackson’s novel is dear to my heart... or at least as dear to anyone’s heart as a tale of encroaching terror and possible mental breakdown can be. It’s a chilling, compact masterpiece, fewer than 250 pages long, of sustained dread. The thought of it being spread across 10 episodes, and possibly multiple seasons, induces dread of a different kind.
We’ve already seen what happens when television takes a classic novel with a defined beginning, middle and ending — even if it’s an ambiguous ending — and cynically stretches the original concept to snapping point. It’s called season two of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Jackson’s novel has been adapted for the screen twice before now, both times under the title The Haunting. The 1963 film, directed by Robert Wise and shot in widescreen black-and-white to increase the eerie atmosphere, is a classic of the genre.
Bar omitting a few of the novel’s secondary characters, it’s a very faithful version, subtly replicating its tone of mounting terror, so that when the shocks hit, they hit hard.
The 1999 remake, starring Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones, is a dud. The story is roughly the same, but nuance goes out the window in a bludgeoning avalanche of over-the-top CGI silliness.
So what, for better or worse, will the Netflix version add? From what we know so far, an awful lot that’s new, but apparently not much that has anything to do with Jackson’s novel.
There are no paranormal investigators this time. The story, told in the present day and flashbacks, focuses on five siblings, the Crains, who grew up in Hill House and have coped, or not, with their traumatic experiences in very different ways. A suicide draws them back to the place in adulthood.
It’s described as a “loose” adaptation, yet sounds like a completely different story. So why call it The Haunting of Hill House and not something else? To be fair, the trailer is properly spooky, which bodes well. But no matter how scary it is, it’s not The Haunting of Hill House we know.
The Haunting of Hill House streams on Netflix from today.