The frightener

Long before Stephen King made horror a national pastime, there was Shirley Jackson.

Born in San Francisco in 1919, the author of the wickedly creepy classic The Lottery settled in North Bennington, a small village in Vermont, after her marriage to author and literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. Once there, she delighted in setting her thrillers in bucolic hamlets. The Lottery, for example, is a chilling account of how the denizens of a small New England town singled out and phlegmatically stoned to death their neighbors. It's not likely that the story made her popular with her fellow townies in North Bennington, and that, along with her publicly expressed belief in witchcraft, may have contributed to the sense of personal isolation and anxiety that pervades Jackson's creepier works.

Her husband wrote after her death: "If the source of her images was personal and neurotic, she transformed those images into meaningful general symbols; if she used the resources of supernatural terror, it was to provide metaphors for the all-too-real terrors of the natural."

In The Haunting of Hill House, first published in 1959 and now being brought to the stage by the Corner Theater, Jackson essentially set the pattern for haunted-house tales. (Echoes of her novel can be heard in The Amityville Horror and the sci-fi classic Alien.)

Jackson's heroine, Eleanor Vance, is a nervous, 32-year-old loner brought to Hill House during a gathering of psychics. The house calls to Eleanor. She feels a sudden empathy for it, a sense that the house is offering her the home she longed for. "If only I could surrender," she says with a sigh. Later, much to the consternation of the other guests, she does. "I am like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster...and the monster feels my tiny little movements inside..."

In Jackson's own life, fate was equally unkind. Her heavy smoking and drinking, together with the consumption of tranquilizers, contributed to her death from cardiac arrest in 1965 at age 48. The stories she left behind, however, continue to thrill readers. For those tired of (fake) haunted houses and too old for trick-or-treating, the Corner Theater production offers a great way to have a little Halloween fun. Just be prepared to leave the light on.

--Juliana Barbassa

The Haunting of Hill House premieres October 9. Shows are at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday, through November 1. A special performance takes place at 10:30 p.m. Saturday, October 31. The Corner Theater is located in the DeSoto Town Center, 211 E. Pleasant Run Road. Tickets are $12 general admission, $10 for senior citizens, teenagers, and KERA or STAGE members, and $8 on Thursday nights. Call (972) 680-4466 for reservations.

 
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