Shirley Jackson’s Sublime First Paragraph in ‘Hill House,’ Annotated

Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer can work into almost any conversation, no matter the topic, his affection for the first paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. We were finally moved to ask him if he could explain and justify that affection.

This was his response:

“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 the hills,[§] holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily[**] against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there,[††] walked alone.”

[*] First, let’s hear it for that semicolon, the first of three in this paragraph. Any number of celebrated writers who ought to know better — I’ll name no names — have said any number of foolish, disparaging things about semicolons. Jackson uses them, beautifully, to hold her sentences tightly together. Commas, semicolons, periods: This is how the prose breathes.

[†] I wonder how many combinations of fauna Jackson experimented with before she landed on “larks and katydids.” The two k’s are a particularly nice touch. You are reading this paragraph aloud, are you not? You ought.

[‡] I love the contrast of the deferential “by some” and the blunt “not sane.” The paragraph marches along in stately fashion, but Jackson’s beginning to tilt you off-balance. Hold on.

[§] If there’s any bit of the paragraph I’m not 100 percent sold on, it’s the Hill/hills repetition right here. It just doesn’t sing to me. Had I been SJ’s Hill House copy editor, I might have asked her whether she’d consider deleting “against the hills.” (And I’ll bet she’d have declined to do so.)

[**] SJ’s marvelous with adverbs, don’t you think? (Don’t let anyone poison your mind against adverbs. Adverbs are great.) “Neatly,” “sensibly,” “steadily”: It’s all so civil and civilized. Until…

[††] This may well be my favorite comma in all of literature. It’s not grammatically necessary; you might, if you were so inclined (I’m not), argue that it’s incorrect. But here it is, the last breath of the paragraph, and I like to think that it’s SJ’s way of saying, “This is your last chance to set this book down and go do something else, like work in your garden or stroll down the street for an ice cream cone. Because from this point on it’s just you, and me, and whatever it is that walks, and walks alone, in Hill House.”

I don’t think that anyone’s going anywhere. Right?