|The Haunting of Hill House|
by Shirley Jackson
(Penguin Classics Rev. Ed. 1998)
Unlike Susan Hill's The Woman in Black, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House does not possess (if you'll pardon the pun) of a specific malicious or malcontent spirit or entity; rather, it is the house itself which seems to harbor resentment and ill-will. The knockings on the walls and doors leave no marks, and the cold is the result of no draft. Some of the strange feelings one has in the house seem to be explained away by the original (strange) builder's uncanny habit of making everything just slightly uneven and askew, but for the rest, it's a mystery.
The Haunting of Hill House, is a thriller to end all thrillers. It has been incredibly influential in the genre of horror since its publication in 1959. Notably, Anne Rivers Siddons and Stephen King have been affected by Shirley Jackson's, dare I say, perfect story about a haunted house. As Siddons says (while discussing her novel, The House Next Door (1978)--a tribute, really, to Jackson's book):
A house... is an extension of ourselves; it tolls in answer to one of the most basic chords mankind will ever hear. My shelter. my earth. My second skin. Mine. So basic is it that the desecration of it, the corruption, as it were, by something alien takes on a peculiar and bone-deep horror and disgust. It is both frightening and...violating, like a sly, terrible burglar. A house askew is one of the not-rightest thigs in the world, and is terrible out of all proportion to its actual visitant...
It's worth noting, of course, that the most unpleasant personalities (the housekeeper, and the doctor's wife) go about unbothered by the house; it is only the innocent who are targeted.
This is a theme that's harped on in the 1999 film adaptation "The Haunting" starring Lili Taylor, Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Owen Wilson. Taylor (the Eleanor - Nell - character) discovers that the original builder (who, in the book, had two daughters who lived into adulthood, and whose lives mirror that of Eleanor and her sister) had all of his children die in childbirth, lived as a reculse, and ended his days kidnapping children from the town nearby and murdering them. Their souls are trapped in the house (along with his) and can be seen in the very very creepy cherubic faces all over the place. It's a disturbing (and bad) film, and it kind of beats Jackson's original story to a pulp.
You'd be hard-pressed, I think, to find any haunted-house story or film (or tv series--American Horror Story, anyone?) from the last few decades that was not influenced by Shirley Jackson, and The Haunting of Hill House is just the tip of that iceberg. I strongly recommend it be your first stop on any course through American Horror Fiction.