The Haunting Of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a "haunting"; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.
Review: I fell in love with Shirley Jackson’s short stories when I was in college, but her novels seem to get mixed reviews. A lot of people love her short fiction and feel “meh” about her longer work. I stumbled across a copy of The Haunting of Hill House at the used bookstore and decided to give it a try.
I guess I fall into the “meh” category. I like parts of this book, but it’s not as creepy as I hoped.
The story follows four people who come to a mansion called Hill House to investigate the paranormal activity that allegedly occurs there. The main character is Eleanor, a young woman who has spent most of her adult life caring for her dying mother and dealing with her overbearing sister. She thinks her trip to Hill House will give her a chance to become independent. At first, the ghost hunt is just a fun adventure with her new friends. Then things start to go wrong. The ghosts at Hill House refuse to let Eleanor leave.
“All I could think of when I got a look at the place from the outside was what fun it would be to stand out there and watch it burn down.” – The Haunting of Hill House
This book is a character-driven horror story. There are ghosts, but most of the tension comes from the relationships between the characters. Eleanor is very childlike, and the other characters treat her like a kid. This pisses her off because she just got away from her awful sister, who also treats her like a kid. She’s still figuring out what she wants to do with her life. She’s not as “adult” as other people her age, but she’s trying (mostly).
The house makes the conflicts worse by turning the characters against each other. Possessions are mysteriously destroyed, forcing the characters to share clothes and bedrooms. Strange writing appears on the walls, making the ghost hunters question if one of them is playing a prank. On the surface, everybody appears to get along, but there’s a simmering tension that runs through the relationships. The reader gets the sense that the characters could start hating each other at any moment.
The descriptions of the house are extremely well written. It’s easy to imagine this huge, creepy mansion with weird doors and staircases everywhere. It’s like a fictional version of the Winchester Mystery House in California.
“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.” – The Haunting of Hill House
My problem with this novel is that there’s entirely too much talking. Most of the time, the characters aren’t even saying anything important. They’re just yapping at each other. It massively got on my nerves. I wanted them to stop talking about ghost hunting and actually go ghost hunting. You’re in a haunted mansion! Put down the alcohol, shut your traps, and do something interesting! I don’t have the patience for this.
My attention wandered often while reading this novel, but I like the ending. It makes the reader question if Eleanor is a reliable narrator. Is the house messing with her mind? Is she going insane? Has she always been insane? As the story progresses, Eleanor’s worst fears come true, and she starts identifying with the house more than with the people inside it. Is that the house’s fault, or Eleanor’s?
“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.” – The Haunting of Hill House
I was kind of disappointed with this book. I expected it to be creepier. I liked it enough that I’ll try some of Shirley Jackson’s other novels, but so far, I prefer her short stories.