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The Haunting of Hill House

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I have a review at Strange Horizons in which I try to sum up my deeply conflicted reaction to Netflix’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

Netflix’s miniseries adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House, by Mike Flanagan (who wrote most of the series’s ten episodes and directed all of them), throws most of that out the window. It takes only a few scenes for a viewer familiar with the book to realize that the only similarity between it and this miniseries are a few character names, and the fact that they both revolve around a Hill House which is haunted. To a Jackson fan (most of whom are, after all, extremely defensive of her reputation) this initially seems like sacrilege. Why use the name if you’re not going to honor the actual work?

Flanagan’s Haunting never offers a persuasive answer to this question. What it does instead, almost as soon as the issue is raised, is counter with a genuinely excellent piece of horror filmmaking that makes you forget, at least for a while, its total lack of fidelity to its source. This isn’t simply a case of Netflix showering its usual millions in production values, or its typically excellent casting, on the project. The Haunting of Hill House is haunting in the best of ways, both scary and harrowing, and its images and set-pieces linger in the mind in a way that is deeply disquieting. It doesn’t take very long for even the most avid Jackson fan to accept that a Haunting of Hill House that takes only the vaguest inspiration from the original novel can be an excellent work in its own right. Until it suddenly isn’t.

I do end up recommending the show, because the parts that works (mainly the first six episodes) are really quite special. But it’s amazing how easily people will take a work that is blatantly about gender and women’s issues, and rip out and reverse the substance of it without even realizing that they’ve done it. The first seconds of Netflix’s Hill House, in which the novel’s famous opening paragraph is read by a man (we later find out that, in the miniseries’s story, he wrote those words) set the tone for the entire series, which takes a story about women’s frustration and turns it into a story about men’s pain.

This is also a good opportunity to mention that Strange Horizons is having its annual fund drive. This was the first venue to publish my work, and in many ways it paved the path for much of my online writing career (I was also the reviews editor between 2010 and 2014). That fact notwithstanding, it’s a fantastic source for smart, socially aware criticism of genre fiction, as well as featuring original fiction, poetry, and essays. Please consider donating.

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