Posted on Leave a comment

The Haunting of American Literature

A specter is haunting Netflix; the specter of the literary ghost story. 2018’s The Haunting of Hill House and 2020’s follow-up series, The Haunting of Bly Manor, have breathed eerie life into a genre as timeless as English literature: the ghost story. Specifically, the series represent a revival of the opulent, literary ghost story, not that that is a genre that has ever gone or will ever go completely out of fashion.

The mastermind behind both Hill House and Bly Manor is Mike Flanagan, who previously wrote and directed films including Oculus and Hush. He also worked on two prior literary adaptations for Stephen King; Doctor Sleep and Gerald’s Game, the latter of which was developed with Netflix. Flanagan worked with a handful of writers and directors to flesh out the Hauntings of Bly and Hill, all of whom did an excellent job. Flanagan’s adaptations are diverse in tone and style, but have a common element of rich, atmospheric dread and themes including the exploration of trauma, family pain, and the lingering stains the past can leave upon the present.

The Haunting of Hill House is a masterpiece of serialized storytelling. Everything about it – character development and arcs, narrative collage – is crafted for Netflix’s format, which is serialized and broken into distinct chapters but also made for binging. The novel on which it is based, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, is one of the defining works of American horror, and it’s excellent to see it treated with the respect it deserves. Hill House has been adapted for the big screen numerous times, most terribly (if, perhaps, quite memorably) in 1999 in a rotten big-budget trash pile that attracted the likes of Liam Neeson, Lili Taylor, and Owen Wilson like fat, buzzing flies.

Previous adaptations aside, Flanagan’s Hill House is not particularly faithful to the original novel. It borrows the broad outlines of its plot and certain names and characters from the text, but largely the series tells an original tale. What it borrows brilliantly from Jackson’s 1959 book is what has been most elusive in lesser adaptations of her wok: the atmosphere, the thick dread that hangs uniquely over her vision of a house that is fundamentally and basically wrong in some way.

Flanagan’s follow-up series for Netflix, The Haunting of Bly Manor, is based on The Turn of the Screw, an 1898 novella by Henry James. Bly Manor borrows more from the original than Hill House, but continues to mine the rich vein Flanagan explored in the first series: how and why the past haunts us, the human quest for love and connection, and the complex ties of family that can both hold us up and drag us down to our doom. Likewise, Bly perpetuates the atmospheric spookiness of Hill House: both series are masterpieces of set design and location scouting, among other things.

Flanagan and producer Trevor Macy have a new all-original project             in development for Netflix called Midnight Mass that should prove to be a dark religious horror-drama, if early buzz is any indication. In a similar vein, Flanagan has been tapped to direct yet another Stephen King project: Revival, a bleak little slice of religious horror which happens to be one of my personal favorites among latter-day King books. While both of these announcements are good news for fans of Flanagan’s dense literary adaptations, it does spell unfortunate news for those waiting for a third season of Haunting. While Bly Manor’s success and Flanagan’s continuing relationship with Netflix virtually guarantee a follow-up, it sounds like he will be tied up at least through 2021.

Flanagan’s Haunting anthology is only one of several genre literary adaptations to hit Netflix of late; others include Ratched (very loosely based on Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and Locke & Key (based on the comic book series by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez). In short, even though Flanagan has set the bar for adaptation quite high, Netflix seems poised to offer plenty to enjoy while fans wait for the next Haunting installment. We can only speculate as to which ghost story will prove to be its inspiration. Whatever direction Flanagan elects to go with his project, I have no doubt that the results will be chilling and beautiful.

Leave a Reply