“Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so 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.”–Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
While she may not have been the one who invented the haunted house genre, Shirley Jackson took the formula devised by her forefathers, perfected it, and earned her way onto several “best of” horror lists, inspiring the likes of Stephen King, Richard Matheson and others along the way. Although We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Lottery are masterpieces in their own right, it is Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959)–which was brought to the silver screen as The Haunting by Robert Wise–that has been stuck in my head since I put it down over a year ago.
Before we dive into the novel, I’d like to point something out about Jackson that is worth mentioning. Towards the end of her rather short life–she died six years after Hill House was published at the age of 48–she became terribly agoraphobic. That means for some reason or another, she became both dreadfully afraid to leave her house and terrified of interacting with people. She also, as rumor has it, was obsessed with the occult and believed in witchcraft. A bit of an oddball, she had strained relationships with her mother and eventually with her husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. A combination of all of these factors permeate the novel and make it an interesting read. Okay, let’s dig in.
On the outside, Hill House is your average haunted house story. If you’re familiar with films like House on Haunted Hill (which also released in 1959) or even Richard Matheson’s popular Hell House (different book, I swear) it’s basically the same thing. There is a ringmaster who brings out a group of people to stay in a haunted house (FOR SCIENCE!), people are skeptical at first, then things start to happen.
In Hill House’s case, a man named Dr. John Montague seeks the assistance of shy and withdrawn Eleanor Vance, a flamboyant actress with psychic abilities named Theodora, and the future owner of the home, Luke Sanderson. What a crew. Montague’s goal is to find proof of paranormal activity. Sounds familiar, right? Well, not quite. As you dive deeper into the compact novel, you’ll witness a subtle change that will make you question everything you’ve read in the book thus far. That is what sets this novel apart from those of its kind and is the reason I’ve been thinking about the book off and on for over a year.
** WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD **
The majority of the story is told from Eleanor’s perspective and yes, if you gleaned anything from my last statement, she is an unreliable narrator, which like other novels that use this approach plops this novel on instant re-read lists everywhere. Eleanor, or Nell, as Theo affectionately refers to her, is a sheltered mouse of a woman who’s spent the majority of her life taking care of her convalescent mother. Prior to her stay in Hill House, her mother passed in the night after Nell didn’t respond to her bell ringing summons, which leads her to blame herself for her mother’s death. So, basically, she has little to no social skills once she enters Hill House, and is excited for something or really anything no matter how out of the ordinary to happen. In other words, she’s a perfect specimen for the paranormal house to feed off of and claim–eventually driving her into madness that she may have already been teetering on the brink of.
Much like in Stephen King’s The Shining (which some believe to be a Hill House rip off) the location itself is believed to be a paranormal entity looking for its next victim. Now, that doesn’t mean you’re going to get violent poltergeist activity, or even a fire hose or a couple of topiary animals to chase you down the hall. Jackson’s horror, described by many as classic terror, features an increasing feeling of dread with a quiet creep factor that sneaks up on you when you least expect it. The interesting thing about the house is that because of the way it is built–with towers you can’t see from certain windows, odd angles and the like–a lot of the odd feelings and supposed “paranormal” activities can be explained away scientifically. For example, on the first night the foursome enters the house, all of the doors slam shut–a classic feature of any haunted house. Montague’s explanation for this occurrence is that the home’s original owner and architect wasn’t a fan of how conventional houses were built. Because of this, he decided to build the house like a maze, which could throw anyone off and drive somebody mad. In Eleanor’s case, it doesn’t hurt that she was already pretty unstable.
Because the point of view is limited to one character, we’re only able to see what she sees, and are only given her interpretations of the events to go on. The thing about Eleanor is that she is really easy to connect to. How many of us have felt like we didn’t belong? She comes into the house as many of us would, as a skeptic. Things however start to go south really quickly for Nell. She starts repeating nonseniscal phrases, hallucinating, and revealing her seriously warped, delusional ideas to the other characters. Also, since we remain with her the whole time, we only know what she knows. With chunks of time missing from the novel, we have no way of knowing whether the other characters’ accusations pointed in her direction or if Eleanor’s own denial of the blame is the truth. Although initially the characters seem to experience the same things, eventually Nell witnesses things that others don’t. Whether they are caused by her, or hallucinations conjured by her madness, Shirley Jackson leaves it up to you to decide.
All in all, it is Shirley Jackson’s beautiful blend of prose, scientific reasoning and paranormal activity that drive this tiny novel from 0 to 100 in under 200 pages. If you’re looking for something that will keep you up at night and longing for the daylight and a breath of fresh air, The Haunting of Hill House will not disappoint. It is a claustrophobic, disorienting novel that will pull a fast one on you.