Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has what I think is my favorite opening paragraph of any book I’ve read in recent memory.
"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 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.”
I want to talk a moment about why I love it so much. There are lessons to be learned here, I think, so let’s unpack a little why I think this works.
One thing your opening must do is communicate to the reader what kind of book they’re in. Not necessarily genre in the big, book store category sense, but genre in the sense of “is this book for me?” And I think this opening does that incredibly well. It makes no bones about the kind of story it is and its interests. It says, clearly and concisely: this story is scary as fuck.
Jackson sets it up beautifully. The final turn, “whatever walked there, walked alone,” is such a chilling, strange, and unsettling shift in the tone. We’ve been building to it all along “not sane,” “holding darkness within,” “silence lay steadily.” But the introduction of something walking in Hill House tells us that this is not a novel of bucolic, simple comforts. Hill House is not a refuge, it is a threat.
But it also tells us what specific kind of horror novel we’re in. This isn’t the kind of book where a monster lurks in the shadows to tear the heroine limb from limb. It’s not about jump scares or chase scenes. This is a book that relies on a slow accumulation of dread until we fall into a nightmare dreamscape necessitated by a retreat from “absolute reality.”
Jackson is telling us, not just about the category and tone of the book, but the entire shape of the story is in the shape of this paragraph. It’s going to be about madness and fear and dreams. And it’s going to start with a normal seeming house with “walls upright” and “doors sensibly shut” and it’s going to end with a monster. It’s going to build quietly until we are trapped in the house, alone, and afraid.
One of the best storytelling tricks you can do is to tell your reader exactly what to expect and then give it to them. The thrill isn’t in not knowing what’s coming, it’s in knowing exactly what is around that corner and dreading it, fearing it, needing to see it with your own eyes.
The second thing that this paragraph does that is essential is it introduces us to the protagonist. We meet Hill House in all its glory. We are told what we’re contending with, what we’re focused on. The rules are established. The house is old. It’s solid. And it’s haunted. We are focused on a character and we are given a question. What happened here? And therefore what is going to happen here? We are told that the house is not sane and something walks there.
Our curiosity, our need to know about Hill House and the people who will encounter it shortly, gives us the stakes of the story. There’s a tension inherent in the mystery of the question. What does Hill House, not sane, want? What will it do? And why are we so afraid?
The last thing I want to point out is the one that’s the most overlooked and the hardest to talk about. There’s a hypnotic beauty to these sentences. The phrasing, the rhythm, the word choices. The tension between this cold academic phrasing of “no live organism” and the rhythmic pull of the “larks and catydids.”
She luxuriates in the description here, but with such a simple economy. We know so much about this house and where it’s situated, without long florid description: “walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut.”
The punctuation is exquisite, forcing us to pause and consider what Jackson is saying. Each of those commas are as remarkable as a gun shot. Followed by a semicolon that tells us we’re leaving the absolute reality of material construction and heading into the horrors that lurk there.
I talk so much about storytelling, but the words matter. The how of the telling matters as much as the what of it. Structure and intent are absolutely necessary, but they all collapse in the face of a beautifully turned sentence. Don’t forget the music of a beginning. Don’t forget the rhythms that can lull a reader into submission. Use your words to invite them in and then trap them in structures they can’t escape any way but through.
Shirly Jackson was a master stylist. Every word drips with intention, with menace, and with beauty. She sets the stage, tells us what kind of story we’re in for, introduces her player, and does it with style so compelling that we can’t look away. Study her work. There are lessons to be learned here for all of us.