HAUNTED WASPS – Shirley Jackson & Iain Banks (1959 & 1984)


The Haunting Of Hill HouseI thought We Have Always Lived in the Castle was a 5-star read, so imagine my surprise that I couldn’t connect with this book, written three years prior by troubled soul Shirley Jackson. It’s a bit of classic, and no less than 13 of my friends on Goodreads have read this as well, 12 of them rate it positively, most whip out even 4 or 5 stars.

It started out alright, but when Eleanor Vance arrives at the strange old mansion in the hills, things soon become a bit boring. I felt Jackson managed to convey the psychological horror much better in Castle.

I can’t fully put my finger on it, but I think my main issue was the tone in which Hill House was written. There’s a faux objectivism in the scientific endeavor of Dr. Montague’s semi-paranormal research that felt a bit flat, as it was echoed in Jackson’s tone. Add to that a certain detached irony in Jackson’s narrative voice: that irony made it so that the story didn’t feel real to me. As a result, I became less and less engaged with the characters, and also the house itself gradually lost its attraction, to the point I simply didn’t care anymore, making me stop at the halfway point.

Another thing that killed it for me was the fact that the proceedings were fairly obvious, the story fairly transparant in its method – admittedly also because I read some reviews upfront. Jackson sets up a creepy environment – via a house that has a geometry that is slightly off and a history of suicide, etc. – and in that environment the main character can then start her descent into madness. I didn’t feel there was much mystery in that.

Jackson didn’t convince me during the first half that there was enough of interest to pursue Eleanor’s mental journey, even though I feel she did manage to make her an interesting character, at least at first, when she brakes free from her sister.

I’m truly disappointed, I expected a lot after the triumph that was We Have Always Lived in the Castle.


The Wasp Factory Iain BanksBanks is another author I enjoyed a lot previously – even if most of the reviews of his work on my blog are negative – click the Iain M. Banks tag below to find out.

I loved the Culture novels back when I read them 10 years ago, but this – his debut – failed to grip my attention. It’s not a science fiction title by the way, but a story about a deranged kid.

Who are these people that find The Wasp Factory shocking or disgusting or horrific? Cruelty to animals seems like a regular thing for some kids growing up on the country side, and lots of the stuff that happens feels generic: imbue small animal skulls with magical protective powers, etc. Been there, done that.

Bank’s short book seems devoid of any purpose. As horror if falls short. It lacks the urgency of a book like We Have Always Lived in the Castle – probably because it feels like Banks simply amused himself writing this. It has his mischievous boyish smirk all over it, whereas Shirley Jackson was basically writing about her own agony. The language is okay for sure, Banks is a smooth writer, but this book simply started to feel boring & repetitive after page 30. I DNF’ed at 40%.

After I stopped, I read some spoiler reviews of this, and boy, I’m glad I stopped. Psychological depth zero, and the entire set-up of the story hinges on one ludicrous idea.

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34 responses to “HAUNTED WASPS – Shirley Jackson & Iain Banks (1959 & 1984)

  1. While I’m not a fan of either of these authors, I never like it when somebody has a less than good experience reading books.
    Kind of like if someone had a bad experience with a Hawaiian pizza. I think hawaiian pizza is the most disgusting thing ever. But it is still pizza and deserves our love and respect…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can see your aversion to Banks. I think I share part of that, as I wrote in my comment to Wakizashi below, I’m afraid of rereading them – or at least a few of them, I have no intention of rereading them all. If it ever happens, I’ll start with Excession and see from there.

      As for Jackson: what’s your beef with her?

      As for pizza: we used to eat hawaiian quite a lot as kids. It’s only since a decade or so pizza purism has established itself to the point it is hard to even get them nowadays. Pineapple, tomato, ham and cheese, what’s not to like?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Re: Jackson
        Horror. And not even the kind I can stand. All the reviews of her works seem to indicate she writes this mucky, hopeless, despairing crap. I don’t have time for that.

        I don’t like sweet on my savory pizza. There was one restaurant chain, Papa John’s, that added a little sugar to their sauce and people went nuts over it. I tried 2 slices and vowed never to support them again 🙂


  2. I’ll steer clear of these two titles, then – thanks for the warning! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m reluctant to warn people to stay away from the Jackson, lots of people seem to like it, so I’d say read some other reviews too. Either way, I would advice to try We Have Always Lived in the Castle first.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I have vague memories of reading The Wasp Factory as a teenager and finding it an unpleasant experience. Just a bad feeling all round. When, a few years later, I went on to read his first few Culture books, I was really surprised by them. Especially The Player of Games.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it might work better for teenagers. My favorite Culture novel is Excession, and I think The Player of Games was the first I read. I’m a bit afraid of rereading Culture novels, I have a hunch they might feel a bit too boyish/smirky for the kind of reader I’ve become.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, me too. I haven’t read them in years. A lot of books we loved as teenagers don’t really hold up when we re-read them, do they? Two that have held up for me are Dune and Neuromancer.


  4. Yup. The Wasp Factory is a perfect example of a story written for the punch line. And its not a very good punch line.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hmm, the only Banks review on my blog is also a DNF. Against a Dark Background. But I still loved his Culture series. He’s not a writer who can do no wrong. Not everything he does works for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hadn’t read that review yet. I remember liking it, but I can see your points, even though my recollection is murky. I think I would find something like the Lazy Gun a bit contrived and silly nowadays. Still, you gave it a generous 7 stars. Would you still do that today for DNF?

      I thought the other non-Culture book, The Algebraist, was absolutely terrible. Bloated as bloated can be, full of stuff that doesn’t add up.

      Writing these replies to the comments here makes me think I should reread Excession soon, to determine where I stand today on Banks’ Culture stuff. I’ll make it a project somewhere in the second half of 2023. My original plan for the next reread was the Foundation trilogy, we’ll see, maybe the first Foundation soon, and later this year Excession.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Today I wouldn’t give a DNF a 7. I wished I liked it more because it had fun ideas. I remember a jailhouse castle where everyone could move around with chains attached to the walls or something.

        Funny, I really liked The Algebraist. I had a grand time with it.

        I think the Culture series would stand up more than the Foundation series. Damn, that one got old. But I don’t know how much your taste has changed. The Culture series feels quite far removed from the stuff you’re reading these days.


  6. Aonghus Fallon

    Re The Haunting of Hill House. I guess it depends how you assess a book? I’m not sure The Haunting of Hill House works as a story – there really isn’t one – and would reckon it works better as a study in atmosphere: I did find it genuinely claustrophobic (but then I find most of Jacksons’ work claustrophobic). Also – unlike We Have Always Lived in the Castle – we had some glimpses of the outside world and some sense of context.

    I only ever saw one film version: The Haunting (possibly the first film in which I saw Owen Wilson) which, while being pretty cheesy, does deserve credit for bringing the story into sharper focus. The house is the malevolent personfication of the man who built it and sees Eleanor as its wayward daughter.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree. But to me the claustrophobic feeling subsided after I spend about 50 pages in the house itself, it became a bit repetitive imo, and the social interactions inbetween the participants somehow hindered the claustrophoby too. Don’t know why exactly – dialogue that seemed off, or I had trouble with suspension of disbelief?

      We talked about context in the comments to my review of Castle already, but I’m not sure the difference is very big with this one – doesn’t one of the sisters visit the town to get groceries in Castle too? But indeed, we get a glimpse of Eleonor’s family and her travel to the house, and to me those were the strongest parts.


  7. Two not-so-good books in a row sound pretty depressing….
    I have not read Shirley Jackson’s book but I saw the TV version that aired on Netflix and was quite underwhelmed: if the source material is so feeble, I’m glad I avoided it!
    Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m not an aficionado of horror writing, and especially the kind of writing that deals in clichés or cod psychology. Haunted houses? Pah! Lovecraftian hyperbole? Ho-hum. Narratives in which people don’t bother switching on a light when they hear creepy noises in the house? Idiotic!

    Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Victorian tale The Yellow Wallpaper, for example, I found effective as psychological horror principally because it was short, but too many novels in the genre are a few hundred pages too long. In the past I’ve briefly considered the two novels you mention here because they’re reputed to be good, but I’m happy to be permanently warned off them by you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad to be of service! Never been a Lovecraft fan either, never felt the appeal – and that’s coming from someone who enjoys a lot of metal.

      I’m unfamiliar with Gilman, will look into that. For what it’s worth, this book’s problem is not really the length, it’s a bit over 200 pages long.

      Do consider We Have Always Lived in the Castle however, no clichés, cod psychology or hyperbole there. I thought it was really insightful socially.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I heard that other Jackson book was better so I’ll definitely consider it in future, thanks! As for Lovecraft, I can take the odd tale – with suitably long intervals between! – for curiosity’s sake rather than for the possibility of a frisson or two… 😄

        Liked by 2 people

    • “…effective as psychological horror principally because it was short, but too many novels in the genre are a few hundred pages too long.”

      And you could say that about many genres in the current publishing environment. The length of novels has expanded markedly versus 50 years ago, when we were just a few years past the Tolkien inflection point. And the number of novels published per year in the overall fantasy/SF/horror genre is an order of magnitude higher, probably due to some combination of a larger audience primed by visual media, the promotion of ebooks, self-publishing, media and gaming tie-ins, and economies of scale where editing and proofreading are minimal and even marketing and publicity have become the responsibility of the teeming multitudes of aspiring authors.

      Tor’s line of novellas appears to be designed for people who are tired of the padded out novels that are fashionable, but, as with ebooks, the pricing feels higher than warranted for what you get.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I can’t disagree, Paul. Without wishing to commandeer Bart’s blog post, I’ll just add that I’ve veered more towards shorter novels and novellas in the last little while, seeking them out in bookshops, charity shops and on my own shelves of yet to be read titles, much as I feel I ought to get on with Middlemarch and its ilk.

        I’m sure there are good reasons – psychological, zeitgeist or whatever – for doing so, but I suspect mostly to do with the impatience that arises from aging…

        Liked by 1 person

        • I have no problem with other people having a conversation here, so don´t feel obliged to hold back.

          I´m veering towards shorter titles too. Children have eaten my reading time, and I don´t want to be stuck in one book for a month.

          Liked by 1 person

      • I think book bloat is also due to the fact that digital word processing has made it much, much easier for writers to loose themselves in their own creation. Editing 1000 typed or hand written pages requires a lot more dedication, and in a way provided a kind of quality filter.

        Now that I think of it: my hunch is that book bloat is less pronounced in regular literary fiction. Maybe because genre fiction is more escapist, and readers want a more immersive experience? My hunch could be wrong of course.

        Liked by 1 person

        • That must have been one factor in the fat fantasy/SF boom, but I think there were some synergistic effects too. Trilogies got popular after the late 1960s inflection point (Tolkien plus the counterculture plus the New Wave), and then both the length of genre novels and the number published per year went up in parallel. And there was a further increase in both parameters after the mid-1980s inflection point (Orwell plus the early PCs and word processors). That one is where you would expect to start seeing some effects from use of software to aid the writer and publisher in their activities. Maybe the earlier one was a supply and demand situation? Publishers staffed up to handle more and bigger genre works when they saw that the genre was actually selling very well? By contrast, just after the late 1950s inflection point (Sputnik plus the demise of American News Company), the number of genre novels published per year doubled (to a still small number) but page counts didn’t seem to rise much in tandem.

          There have always been very long “mainstream” or “literary” novels, like The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, Gone With the Wind, or even Shogun. Not to mention the more dicey works that were just plain long, like Atlas Shrugged and Miss MacIntosh, My Darling. Best-sellers from the 1950s and 1960s like Valley of the Dolls or Anatomy of a Murder could be moderately fat, or fairly slim like To Kill a Mockingbird or Catcher in the Rye. I’m not sure there is such a thing as a non-genre best-seller now, since micro-marketing has given us thrillers, chick lit, suspense, historical, and all the flavors of romance as genres (plus “works with literary pretensions”). My guess is there are few 700+ page best-sellers that don’t come from a genre known for that (like fantasy), but still a variation in the lengths of best-sellers similar to what we had in the 1950s and 1960s. Also not sure that best-sellers sell as many copies as they used to when fewer titles were being published each year.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Interesting points. I’m not sure bloat in speculative fiction starts before the 80ies/90ies. We had trilogies, sure, but about all the titles I’ve read from the 60/70s are slim to today’s standards – the only exceptions I can think of now being Dune & Dahlgren, but I’m sure there are others too. Obviously my sample is very limited, but still, there is more here than just coincidence: about every science fiction book the local second hand shop sells from the 60/70s is slim. I think part of that was the popularity/price of the pocket. I’m much less familiar with fantasy from the 60/70s, so I’m not sure there.

            As for non-genre bestsellers, I think there are still quite a lot: Salley Rooney, Moshfegh, Franzen, etc. Most of them seem slim to me, but you are probably right about the variation being similar to before, and the really thick ones often belong to a genre.

            It would be an interesting research topic. I’ve googled a bit, and for the situation today, it seems like “fantasy, historical fiction, and horror novels are about 15% longer than other genres.” (based on the 15 novels in the genre on Kindle, https://kindlepreneur.com/how-many-words-in-a-novel/)

            This is also very interesting: http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2008/12/why_are_sf_and_fantasy_novels.html


            • That’s an interesting discussion at Charlie’s site. Looks like S. M. Stirling backs up your argument about it being too tedious to write very long works before word processing software came along. (I remember ripping up pages and retyping them rather than trying to use whiteout ribbon or liquid, because both were such a nuisance.) On the publisher’s side, Aldus PageMaker and Quark XPress both came along to make life easier in the mid 1980s.

              The initial point Stross makes about paperback racks in supermarkets and department stores doesn’t ring completely true to me for SF/fantasy books, because very few of them were stocked in that kind of store as I remember, and it was mostly horror or the SF thriller/disaster books (like Lucifer’s Hammer) that did make an appearance. I usually had to go to a bookstore, or maybe a pharmacy or a “news store” (magazine stand or newspaper/stationery store) to find any appreciable selection of SF or fantasy. Maybe it was different in the UK and California.

              I don’t think page counts have gotten that much worse since 2010, but the number of titles published per year drastically went up from that point on. Not sure why–more old novels being reprinted? E-readers? Self-publishing? It’s a bit of a mystery. I’m a little suspicious about what being a best-seller means nowadays when old works like Fahrenheit 451 and Dune seem to regularly show up on the lists.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Re: number of books published. My guess is that it became cheaper to produce books, also for smaller runs (digital printing making it easier, other technoligical improvements, better and free spelling checkers, easier communication & promotion because of the internet, digital ARCs, easier, faster and cheaper lay-out because of computers, etc, etc) and publishers because of that just flood the market. Economics of scale, etc. Author’s margins for beginning authors have probably dropped as well, people just happy to be a published author and not making money out of it.

                A friend of me had a blog about being a young parent (in Dutch), a publisher contacted her out of the blue if she wanted to make a book out of her blog posts, she did, wrote some additional stuff, they printed 1000 of them, they sold enough so the publisher made some money, but my friend hardly saw a dime. She was happy about it all nonetheless.

                Two other people I know wanted to write an illustrated childrens book about fair fashion, a labour of love basically. Spend countless of hours (hundreds and hundreds) doing it. Publisher were very enthousiastic, they could pick the best deal, but basically they wouldn’t be compensated for all the hours. A print run of about 3000, to be distributed via fashion shops, etc. They were, again, happy, thinking it would benefit their overall careers in fashion if they’d published such a book. And these examples aren’t even about self-publishing.


  9. Not read these but I admire We Have Always… and I stand behind Jackson short stories as well. Sad she’s mostly known by The Lottery as I find her other short stories a work of art, proper Americana, haunting in a beautiful way. They together make a great cohesive collection.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Pingback: REVIEW INDEX BY AUTHOR | Weighing a pig doesn't fatten it.

  11. I remember reading The Lottery in school and it’s always stuck with me. Last year I read The Haunting of Hill House, which is the first novel of hers I’ve tried, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Later in the year I read her anthology, The Lottery and Other Stories, and found it a mixed bag. I still enjoyed The Lottery but many of the others seemed more like rough idea sketches. But having read all that first I’m hoping We Have Always Lived in the Castle will completely blow me away. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I will be interested in your experience with Castle, and how it will compare to your reading of House. Do report back when you have!

      I’ll try the short stories someday, will approach without expecting too much, thanks!


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