Skip to main content

Stephen King and Shirley Jackson, American Gothic Writers

Katherine has been teaching English since 2003 and currently holds an MA in liberal arts and an MA in English literature.

The Journeys of Ben Mears and Eleanor Vance

“Journeys end in lovers meeting” (Jackson, 42) is the oft-repeated line of Eleanor Vance, the main protagonist of The Haunting of Hill House. She repeats this to herself, over and over, while thinking about her choice and what she has done in leaving her safe, though unhappy life and journeying to Hill House and the unknown opportunity of meeting her lover. Ben Mears, the protagonist of ‘Salem’s Lot, never mentions this line; he also chooses to make a journey that results in the same opportunity. One critic, Darryl Hattenhauer, seems to think that Eleanor’s journey to Hill House does not achieve its goal of bringing lovers together. “But her journey ends in suicide” (Hattenhauer, 4), he says, and in doing so, it is obvious that he has missed the point. Eleanor actually meets several lovers at the end of her journey. The first of these is Theoroda—just Theodora, no last name—whom Eleanor loves as a sister and possibly more. Luke is the second, although her initial feelings of attraction to him turn into loathing when he chooses Theodora instead. Finally, she meets her true lover, Hill House itself. Ben also has a list of lovers. The first is Matt Burke, not a lover in the traditional sense of the word, but Ben’s father figure and a man he loves and looks up to. To balance his love is Mark Petrie, the young boy who adopts Ben as his own father figure. There is also Ben’s physical lover, Susan Norton. Finally, there is the town itself, his true love, which contains his obsession, the Marsten House.

The journeys themselves have similarities. Ben, like Eleanor, feels excited about the journey. They both feel that they are reaching a place that will have an impact on their lives. At the end of the journey, when the protagonists find their houses, they have the same sense of despair. Ben is disappointed that the house is rented and that he will be unable to stay in it to assist in his novel writing. Eleanor is disappointed that the house is looming, overpowering, and frightening. Both are afraid of the power they sense in the houses that they reach.

Gothic Elements in 'Salem's Lot and The Haunting of Hill House

Once the life-altering journeys of the main protagonists have been compared, the rest of the parallels between the two books appear. Are these parallels accidental? Did they occur simply because Gothics are so formulaic?

According to Hogle in The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction:

"The […] Gothic tale usually takes place (at least some of the time) in an antiquated or seemingly antiquated space—be it a castle, a foreign palace, an abbey, a vast prison, a subterranean crypt, a graveyard, a primeval frontier or island, a large old house or theatre, an aging city or urban underworld, a decaying storehouse, factory, laboratory, public building, or some new recreation of an older venue, such as an office with old filing cabinets, an overworked spaceship, or a computer memory. Within this space, or a combination of such spaces, are hidden some secrets from the past (sometimes the recent past) that haunt the characters, psychologically, physically, or otherwise at the main time of the story. These hauntings can take many forms, but they frequently assume the features of ghosts, spectors, or monsters (mixing features from different realms of being, often life and death) that rise from within the antiquated space, or sometimes invade it from alien realms, to manifest unresolved crimes or conflicts that can no longer be successfully buried from view (2)."

If we accept that all Gothics contain an antiquated structure, ghosts, specters, other strange happenings, and unresolved crimes and conflicts, we can indeed apply these requirements to both books and see that they contain these elements. However, there are numerous options that can occur within each element. In the end, The Haunting of Hill House and ‘Salem’s Lot have little difference in what they choose to use when applying these elements.

Houses as Characters in Gothic Fiction

Both books' antiquated structures are houses identified by the hills around them. Admittedly, Hill House sits underneath the hills, “they don’t fall on you. They just slide down, silently and secretly, rolling over you while you try to run away” (Jackson, 50), while the Marsten House stands above them “on that hill overlooking the village like—oh, like some kind of dark idol.’” (King, 185).

Both houses were sites of suicides. The Marsten House is the spot of Hubie Marsten’s hanging, and Hill House is the spot of the companion of the late Crain daughter’s hanging. The Marsten House was clearly also the site of a murder (Hubie killing his wife, Birdie), and we are led to speculate on the true cause of death for Crain’s second wife in Hill House as a possible murder.

Both houses are characters in their own right, described multiple times as looking like people, containing eyes, mouths, and even eyebrows in the case of Hill House. Both houses further appear to have attitudes. Feelings of being unwelcomed by the houses, as Eleanor and Ben both feel when they arrive at their destination, being led by or drawn to the houses as Eleanor feels once she feels Hill House taking her over, and how Ben feels about coming back to the Lot after all those years.

Finally, both houses seem to have been born as something good and rich. Hugh Crain built “a home for his family..a country home where he hoped to see his children and grandchildren live in comfortable luxury, and where he fully expected to end his days in quiet” (Jackson, 75). Hubie Marsten also had good intentions, and “…it was generally agreed that Hubie had built the nicest house in ‘Salem’s Lot before going soft in the attic” (King, 50). Yet both houses did not live up to their high hopes. As Shirley Jackson explains through Dr. Montague in The Haunting of Hill House:

"I need not remind you, I think, that the concept of certain houses as unclean or forbidden—perhaps sacred—is as old as the mind of man. Certainly there are spots which inevitably attach to themselves an atmosphere of holiness and goodness; it might not then be too fanciful to say that some houses are born bad. Hill House, whatever the cause, has been unfit for human habitation for upwards of twenty years. What is was like before then, whether its personality was molded by the people who lived here, or the things they did, or whether it was evil from its start are all questions I cannot answer" (70).

Ben and Mark also discuss the Marsten House in similar tones, suggesting that possibly the Marsten house has been “sitting there all these years, maybe holding the essence of Hubie’s evil in its old, mouldering bones” (King, 176)

Stange Childhood Happenings in Gothic Fiction

Strange happenings occurred in the lives of both protagonists as children. Eleanor suffered when her house came under attack from a shower of stones, a shower that remained unexplained. She pushed it out of her mind and carefully adhered to the logical explanation her mother forced on her, blaming jealous neighbors when, and if, she ever found herself thinking of the incident. Ben stumbled across a ghost, the ghost of Hubie Marsten, dead and hanging from a beam. Ben spent years telling himself it was just an adrenaline rush and his imagination, carefully shielding himself from the possibility that it had ever really happened. In both cases, the strange things really happened, and the readers are left to puzzle out why the protagonists are so set against the things they experienced.

Unresolved crimes

Unresolved crimes

Unresolved Crimes in Gothic Fiction

Finally, there are unresolved crimes in both houses. Hill House had several suspicious deaths. The Crain sister who lived and died in Hill House—was her companion really at fault for ignoring her cries at night? The first and second wives of Hugh Crain both died on the grounds—one from an accident and one from a fall. But how Jackson relates these deaths make it a question, not a statement. The Marsten House also contains unresolved crimes. Besides the four boys that disappeared and were never found, and Hubie’s history of murder, including an eleven-year-old boy, there is also another mystery that King only hints at.

"They know that Hubie Marsten killed his wife, but they don’t know what he made her do first or how it was with them in that sun-sticky kitchen in the moments before he blew her head in, with the smell of honeysuckle hanging in the hot air like the gagging sweetness of an uncovered charnel pit. They don’t know she begged him to do it" (King, 326).

Other Parallels In Shirely Jackson's and Stephen King's Novels

But it isn’t just Gothic parallels that can be drawn. There are more similarities between the books than a simple genre could explain. There are childhood fears and beliefs made real, the question of the sanity of the characters, the protagonists’ guilt over their perceived murders, the falseness of those around them, children as victims, and choices that would have prevented harm from coming to the protagonists, yet were ignored or not taken.

'Fear' from 'The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals' London 1872. Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

'Fear' from 'The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals' London 1872. Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

Childhood Fears

Childhood fears are the ones that everyone is supposed to outgrow and stop believing in. Vampires, ghosts, and evil spirits haunt the nights. In both books, these fears are made real. Vampires take over the town, forcing its residents into hiding or a fate worse than death. Ghosts and evil spirits roam the halls of Hill House, holding its adult occupants in fear once it is dark. Fears that are not supposed to affect adults, fears that were supposed to have been abandoned, are brought to the forefront and forced upon both the protagonists and the readers, forcing them to confront things they had hoped had been forgotten.


The sanity of the characters is brought into doubt. Eleanor is obviously slipping away into something other than sanity, but when does it begin? Is she causing the writings on the walls? Is she contacting Mrs. Montague’s planchette? The reader never fully knows, thanks to Jackson’s chosen point of view, allowing us to see things through the eyes of Eleanor, who doesn’t herself fully realize what is happening to her. Ben has a few questions of sanity in his own mind about his beliefs, but it is actually Matt whose sanity is called into question multiple times. When Matt relates the tale of Mike Ryerson to Ben, Ben doesn’t doubt him but realizes that others will. Insanity is definitely an option.


The protagonists both have guilt over perceived murders. Eleanor is convinced she is the cause of her mother’s death, but her story doesn’t work. Eleanor claims to have heard her mother banging for help and ignored it but also says she was asleep when it happened. If she had been asleep, she wouldn’t have heard the banging. She merely feels guilty for the thought that she could have caused the death. The same is true for Ben and his wife’s death. Ben appears to be innocent of wrong-doing. The accident that claimed his wife’s life is implied to be simply an unlucky break, yet Ben feels that it is his fault.


Another parallel is the falseness of those around them. “[…]understanding Stephen King’s imaginary ‘Salem’s Lot, Maine, is not simply as merely knowing that ‘Loretta Starcher wears falsies’ (208). In one sense, be it benign or malign, the whole damned town wears ‘falsies’” (Reino, 32). The falseness of those in the town around Ben is similar to Eleanor’s perceived falseness in Hill House. Besides the obvious falseness that is shown in the exchange that begins on page 61 and carries into page 62 of The Haunting of Hill House, in which the characters create new lives for themselves – bullfighters, artists’ models, lord’s daughters, as the story progress, Eleanor reads falseness into everything that is said and done. She starts by accusing, in her mind, Theodora of all sorts of viciousness, including writing her name on the wall, telling her she isn’t wanted in a cruel way, and finally stealing Luke away from her.

Children as Victims

Children appear as victims, or possible victims, in both books. Stephen King is very clear on the topic—the killing a ten-month-old boy, and two young brothers (Ralphie, the first child victim, and then his brother, Danny). Shirley Jackson prefers to softly introduce the topic to the horror of her main protagonist. “In the dream, she believes she hears a child crying and that she will intervene: ‘I will not go along with the hurting of a child, no, I will not; I will by God get my mouth open right now and I will yell I will I will yell ‘STOP IT’” (Hattenhauer, 158). In both cases, the pure evil of hurting children is pushed as a theme, something that cannot be accepted in society.

Bad Choices

The protagonists bypass choices that could have saved them from their final confrontations. Ben could have followed the constable Parkins's lead and left town, leaving others to suffer and die. He instead chooses to fight, then comes back again and fights when he believes the problem is still not gone. Eleanor chooses to stay in Hill House, taking it into herself and letting herself flow into it, rather than going back to her sister’s couch.

Authors Resembling Their Characters

Finally, there are parallels between the authors and their protagonists. Parallels start with the authors and how much they resemble their protagonists. Ben Mears is a writer, researching a book, trying to keep his success going, and hopefully get more successful. Salem’s Lot was Stephen King’s second book, so like Ben, he looked into the future in his third book. Ben’s third book is meant to be a book about the evil that resides in the Marsten House, while Stephen King’s third book turns out to be The Shining, a book about the evil that resides in a hotel. Eleanor is trapped by horrible family life and a dead mother (similar to Jackson’s horrific experiences with her husband and overbearing mother). Both grow to feel that being trapped in a house is home, echoing Jackon’s growing agoraphobia. Eleanor kills herself completely self-destructively, forcefully driving her car into a tree after going insane. Jackson also went insane, and although she may not have been fully aware of it, her behaviors—years of overeating (including a pound of butter a day), amphetamines, and alcohol—brought about her fatal heart attack.

Was Stephen King Inspired by Shirley Jackson?

An important question remains whether Stephen King purposely used Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House as both inspiration and reference material to his ‘Salem’s Lot. It is obvious that Stephen King has used many ideas from Shirley Jackson. Beahm states that the text of ‘Salem’s Lot “…has a hypnotic, dreamlike quality that evokes the mood of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House” (265). Stephen King himself makes references to Hill House, going so far as to have Ben quote from Jackson’s work on page 174, saying that he believed that the Marsten House was like Hill House in that “whatever walked there walked alone.” It is easy to miss what may or may not be a salute to Jackson in King’s naming choices for his characters. He has both a barmaid named Shirley, who appears briefly on page 179, and a man named Jackson who is one of the men who find Birdie and Hubie dead.

Ending on Opposite Notes: Hope and Despair

Aside from all the parallels, there is one opposite in the books that must be mentioned. Hillsdale, the town which houses Hill House, is “dark and ugly” (Jackson, 24) while ‘Salem’s Lot is the small town picture of Norman Rockwell’s America, pleasant and charming, easy to fall in love with.

Why did Stephen King include this difference? Did he believe that it was Hill House that had made the town ugly, just like the Marsten House was going to do to ‘Salem’s Lot? Once the vampires take over, the town changes, and it’s quite easy to say that the Lot has become dark and ugly, with people hiding all day and coming out at night. A Hillsdale resident tells Eleanor, “’People leave this town...They don’t come here” (26). So it is at the end of ‘Salem’s Lot.

Stephen King ends his story on a note of hope. When Hubie Marsten dies and leaves the house, ‘Salem’s Lot loses his evil influence, and the town continues to be bright and gay. It is only when the new evil comes to the house that the town finally turns into the dark, ugly place that Hillsdale was for so long. So while The Haunting of Hill House ends on a pensive, unhappy note—Hill House is, and always will be evil – there is hope in ‘Salem’s Lot, hope that the evil can again be erased and the town can start new and fresh again if Ben and Mark are successful in their campaign.

Works Cited

Beahm, George, ed. The Stephen King Companion. Kansas City: Andrews and McNeal, 1989.

Hattenhauer, Darryl. Shirley Jackson’s American Gothic. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003.

Hogle, Jerrold E., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Hoppenstand, Gary and Browne, Ray B., ed. The Gothic World of Stephen King: Landscape of Nightmares. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987.

Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. New York: Penguin, 1984.

King, Stephen. ‘Salem’s Lot. New York: Pocket Books, 1999.

Magistrale, Tony. Landscape of Fear: Stephen King’s American Gothic. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1988.

Reino, Joseph. Stephen King: The First Decade, Carrie to Pet Sematary. Twayne’s United States Authors Series. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.


Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on April 16, 2016:

I enjoyed your comparison between two great gothic horror novels. You pointed out some interesting parallels.