Matt Purple, managing editor: I grew up in New England where autumn’s peak usually arrived in the middle of October. You couldn’t miss it: the trees natty in their colorful formal wear, the breeze pinching your cheeks, the sudden swarms of New York license plates up to leaf peep. In contrast, fall in my adult home of Northern Virginia typically looks its best in early November, which is why I don’t feel bad about reading horror novels well past Halloween. The trick-or-treaters might have pattered off to bed, but the leaves still crunch underfoot and the darkness falls earlier, turning the mind to things that go bump in the night.
The greatest horror conceit of all time is, of course, the haunted house. And the greatest haunted house story of all time is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, at least according to The Wall Street Journal (they know scary). Four ghost hunters—an academic; his two assistants, one vivacious and the other self-conscious; and a wealthy heir—meet at Hill House, an isolated Victorian mansion, to conduct a study of alleged paranormal activity.
Even without any three a.m. awakenings or blood seeping down the walls, Jackson’s house is still a monster. Its architecture is hideous and its design is deviously byzantine. Doors refuse to stay open and ashen caretakers insist on leaving before dark. The actual horror, at least so far as I’ve read (about a third of the way through), is always one step ahead of the characters, whose robust backstories seem destined to play a role, especially that of the unsure former shut-in Eleanor. Jackson also wrote The Lottery, and Hill House shares that story’s emphasis on psychological disquiet over bared fangs and jump scares. For what it’s worth, Stephen King thought it was one of the best horror novels of the 20th century.
That’s another question worth pondering this fall: just how much is Stephen King’s opinion worth? The literary critic Harold Bloom thought very little. He dismissed the man widely considered our modern horror master as “a writer of penny dreadfuls,” to which the proper response seems to be: “what’s so wrong with that?” King’s novels are as often about ghosts and goblins as they are the dark corridors of the psyche, but that’s precisely their charm. In Salem’s Lot, King’s vampire novel, which I reread last month, the motifs are mostly inherited. There are stakes, crucifixes, coffins, and blood. The protagonists consult classics like Dracula. There’s a literary conservatism at work: these myths are well established; best not to tamper with them too much. The horror comes from juxtaposing those monsters of old with a modern, recognizable, and brilliantly realized small town whose people must contend with an evil they’d long ago dismissed as superstition.
It’s merely some of the scariest entertainment you’ll ever read. So mark me down as a King fan, philistinism and all, and quote me as bullish on Jackson. “Penny dreadfuls”? At least adjust for inflation.