No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for 80 years and might for 80 more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
Often cited as the greatest opening paragraph in horror fiction, Shirley Jackson's now-classic haunted house ghost story The Haunting of Hill House was a huge popular and critical success upon publication. And what a wonderful cover; this edition is dated March 1977 from the Fawcett Popular Library, from the era of Gothic romances: always heroines fleeing across windswept moors or down castle stairs, about them flowing their black hair, in diaphanous nightdresses revealing tasteful decolletage, an imposing house in the background with one single light burning in an upstairs room. Perhaps there is a dominant, darkly-shadowed male nearby as well, with the threat of sex looming. However I don't have much interest in Gothic romance except for the covers; there's a great selection here.
But then, all this talk of Gothic romance only applies to the cover of this particular edition of Hill House, as the novel is not really a Gothic romance at all. I suppose a literary historian could argue that all horror fiction is, at bottom, Gothic romance - I recall that argument being made by a professor of mine back in my very early college years - but Jackson's rational approach to her tale doesn't seem "romantic" at all. The "love story" might be between Eleanor Vance and fellow intrepid haunted house investigator, the psychic Theodora. Whose hand is Eleanor holding? Is it not Theodora's? What does Theodora see but won't tell Eleanor? I know this lesbian subtext is discussed as an undercurrent in the 1963 movie version, with its images of the two women embracing each other in bed - out of fear, true. But fear of what, exactly? Ghosts? Or something much more... intimate?
So perhaps the romance is between Eleanor and, chillingly enough, Hill House itself. Journeys end in lovers meeting, she repeats to herself throughout, this timid, mousy young woman seeking a personality. I confess it's been about 15 years since I read Hill House, my memory might be off, and I'm a bit afraid to read this little old paperback I've got because it might not stand up to the strain.
This all reminds me of starting a new job at a used bookstore back in the late '80s, when my boss was showing me how the store was organized. He asked me, "Do you know what Gothic romances are?" I had to admit complete ignorance. What use would a teenage guy have for that? And he described it just the way I have above: a girl in a nightdress beneath a house with one light on upstairs. I think he told me the perhaps apocryphal story of one such Gothic romance title whose cover art had a house with no lights on at all; the book sold miserably. Fans of genre fiction tend to want things their way or no way at all. And there's no mystery about that.