The Haunting of Hill House

There are very few books that are genuinely scary; Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is one of them. Jackson understood that the worst fears are those that lurk inside of us, always ready to menace and undermine us. She knew about them all right; her two greatest works, Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle combined to undo her, years of eccentricity and ordinary oddness accelerating whilst she wrote them into a full-scale breakdown that left her unable to leave her house and sometimes her room. The fears she wrote about so eloquently had come to possess her, just as they always ultimately possessed her characters. Jackson’s world seemed to function on the principle of the Mobius strip; the faster you run away from what troubles you, the quicker you find yourself headed back towards it. Now that’s scary.

The Haunting of Hill House begins with an act of joyous liberation. Eleanor Vance is a 32-year-old spinster who has spent much of her youth caring for a sick mother, and is now living with her sister and brother-in-law. Out of the blue, she receives a letter from a Dr John Montague who invites her to stay in Hill House. This is the first interesting thing that has happened to Eleanor in just about forever. We see her stubbornly asking to borrow the car (which she owns half of) whilst her sister and brother-in-law stonewall her with petty resistance. So Eleanor gets up early on the day of her departure and simply takes the car without permission. This makes her happy, wildly happy, because Eleanor is owed more than half a car, she’s owed almost a whole life, and it’s her tragedy to be heading towards Hill House to find it.

Hill House, Jackson writes is ‘not sane’. John Montague has rented it in order to conduct ‘scientific’ research into supernatural phenomenon, although the science so far has been to locate individuals with paranormal experiences in their lives and invite them to be part of his experiment. Only two have accepted; Eleanor (who had almost forgotten the incident of stones raining down on her house when she was a child) and Theodora, a vivacious young woman who is reputed to have second sight. Eleanor and Theodora bond instantly, in a way that seems surprisingly profound, like schoolgirls swearing best friends forever. But their relationship will soon be strained under the stresses of life in Hill House, and the strange competitive dance they will perform around the fourth member of the household, Luke, who will one day inherit the house. Luke is a charmer, suave and witty and seemingly kind. Jackson is a clever writer; we care about the quartet of ghost hunters, and their amusing, if arch, banter makes an excellent counterpart to the dark terrors of the house.

But oh the terrors… Here is Eleanor inspecting her room for the first time:

‘Perhaps someone had once hoped to lighten the air of the blue room in Hill House with a dainty wallpaper, not seeing how such a hope would evaporate in Hill House, leaving only the faintest hint of its existence, like an almost inaudible echo of sobbing far away… Eleanor shook herself, turning to see the room complete. It had an unbelievably faulty design which left it chillingly wrong in all its dimensions, so that the walls seemed always in one direction a fraction longer than the eye could endure, and in another direction a fraction less than the barest tolerable length; this is where they want me to sleep, Eleanor thought incredulously; what nightmares are waiting, shadowed, in those high corners – what breath of mindless fear will drift across my mouth….and shook herself again. Really, she told herself, really, Eleanor.’

Jackson is brilliant at evoking the creeping horror of the house, whose doors and windows shut themselves mysteriously, and whose rooms are embedded one inside another in a hauntingly claustrophobic arrangement. Almost as soon as Dr Montague’s party arrive in the house, the disturbances begin. I don’t want to spoil the shock elements of the narrative, but I have to say that some of them are the spookiest scenes I have ever read, infused with a sort of David Lynch weirdness. As in The Turn of the Screw, the phenomena seem to emanate or collect around Eleanor as the character with the most repressed rage and passion. Often she is uncertain whether what is happening is inside her head or out of it, and the reader, sharing her perspective is equally wrong-footed.

Claustrophobia and possession, two primal fears, and brought together here in Hill House, which entraps its inmates and infiltrates their minds. What secretes itself unacknowledged and unwanted into the inside of the head, the thought of being possessed, owned, controlled by another voice or desire that is not fully our own, is a fear worsened by the fact that it is an unavoidable facet of the human condition. Whether we call it the unconscious, or childhood conditioning, or the ‘phantoms’ as some psychologists have called them, fears or neuroses that we do not understand that have been passed down from parents, our minds are worryingly full of triggers and responses that do not seem to belong to us. Hill House works its way into Eleanor’s mind as the one most naturally receptive to its chilling dimensions. And poor Eleanor, so hopeful of a fresh start, finds herself in a deadly home from home.

This was an excellent book, elegantly written, genuinely alarming, and if you feel like scaring yourself in the run up to Halloween, you couldn’t go far wrong by giving it a try. Apologies, too, for the late posting of this review; I was a bit under the weather but am on the mend now!

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17 thoughts on “The Haunting of Hill House

  1. This sounds fantastic. I was very impressed by Jackson’s stories when I read a collection of them last year, and keep meaning to move on to her novels. I noticed that buildings and houses, and the emotional complexes that surround inhabiting them, are often front-and-center even in her short work, so it makes total sense to me that she would have written these two famous haunted-house narratives. She is a master of that unseated feeling, that unnamable wrongness that exists for most of her characters even when there’s nothing paranormal going on at all, even when it’s just a mother talking to her young son and the son’s friend over the breakfast table. Dark stuff, but so well done.

  2. Shirley Jackson is an amazing writer and this really is a very unsettling book. She does ambiguity and psychological horror so well. I think I liked We Have Always Lived in the Castle a little more, but both are certainly among my favourite Halloween reads. Sorry to hear you were unwell, but I’m glad you’re feeling better!

  3. Oooh, sounds really good. I have only read “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”, which is creepy enough sans paranormal activity. My Halloween read this year was “Dark Matter” by Michelle Paver. But I do have a Shirley Jackson anthology on my shelves and still four days till Halloween…

    You always do such a good job in incorporating the author’s lives into their work. I am thinking of your previous entries on Perec and Angela Carter, for example, as well as this post. It makes me think of the chicken and the egg conundrum; did Jackson write because of her fears or did her fears result from her writing about them?

    Sorry to hear you weren’t feeling well, but glad to hear you are on the mend!

  4. So you basically took this book off my wish list when you said this book is genuinely scary. I cannot handle scary books or movies. I get way, way too carried away. Sooo, maybe I should just leave this one be.

  5. Ah, this book converted me to the Love of Shirley Jackson ™. It’s so spooky! I remember having actual goosebumps, real live goosebumps, in the scene where Eleanor and Theodora are in their room being terrified and they think they’re holding hands but actually they’re all the way across the room from each other. Ooo, and how the housekeeper always says the same creepy-ass phrases over and over again. I wish they made more writers like Shirley Jackson.

  6. The first book I bought with my staff discount when I started working in my book store was the Library of America collected works of Shirley Jackson. I can’t think of a writer whose rendering of internal dialogue is more compelling (or more terrifying) than Jackson’s.

  7. Isn’t it true that the fears from which we run come back to haunt us? I’m not familiar with Shirley Jackson’s life but it seems that she incorporated some of her own fears so well that the book sounds genuinely scary.
    I would like to read it very much.

  8. Glad you enjoyed the book! It is a wonderfully scary read, the kind of scary I like. I had no idea she had a break down after writing this and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Sorry to hear you have been under the weather but glad you are on the mend!

  9. I have a hard time with scary books, and I can only read psychological thrillers. I had a hard time reading The Woman in White before bed, and I am in my forties! Go figure!

    I would really like your copy of the Rossetti biography, but only if it is not a problem for you. (When I come to Europe in the future, I will have to take you out for tea.) Let me know how I can give you my information. Thanks!

  10. Fun! All I’ve read of Jackson is her most famous short story, “The Lottery,” and it’s high time I read more of her. I have a copy of We Have Always Lived… on my shelves and will start there. It would be perfect to read BEFORE Halloween, but that’s okay.

  11. I guess the best sign to show a book is extra scary is that it gets to even its author. Like your comment on my post Sarah’s Key, I appreciate reading a second-hand review of a horror rather than going into the story myself. And, ‘David Lynch weirdness’? You’re more well-versed in films than you admit. :)

  12. Emily – oh I love what you say about Shirley Jackson and houses, and about the indefinable ‘wrongness’ that infiltrates her writing. You are spot on in both those observations. I haven’t read her short fiction (although I do have the collection containing The Lottery), but I have read her family memoir, Life Among the Savages which was extraordinary, so light, so funny, so charming. I still find it hard to think that the same author could produce both types of writing.

    Nymeth – well that makes me very happy, to think that We Have Always Lived in the Castle is even better than Hill House. I was looking forward to it even before you said that! You are so right about the ambiguity in her novels; I hadn’t thought about that so much when writing this, but you are spot on. And thank you for the kind wishes.

    Ruthiella -that’s so nice of you – the literature/life connection is my thing at the moment! Jackson really is a chicken and egg situation; I have her biography to read, and am SO curious to know more about her. I do hope you liked Dark Matter – that’s a good Halloween book, and a Jackson anthology – I’m envious! I’d love one of those.

    Aarti – I completely sympathise. On the whole I never read horror or anything vaguely spooky (and I certainly don’t watch films that are frightening!). But I found Jackson okay – the more psychological the story, the easier I find it to read, and Jackson is very psychological. Still, there are thousands of great books out there and no need to read ones that don’t appeal!

    Jenny – oh oh I loved that bit you mention! I thought that was quite the weirdest, spookiest scene ever. And the housekeepers are perfect(ly ghastly). I am a complete convert to Jackson (I liked her funny stuff before this) and I’ll be reading a lot more of her.

    mbolit – what a way to spend your discount! That’s got me thinking about the first books I bought when I was at the bookstore… I wish I could remember what they were! But what you say about inner dialogue is a fantastic comment, and something to think about.

    Caroline – I think you’d like her. She writes brilliantly and the way this novel was structured was so clever. I’d love to know what you make of her.

    iwriteinbooks – oh boy, is there a film? That would be terrifying! I honestly think she’s a fantastic writer and well worth a try.

  13. Stefanie – aha! I have a biography of Jackson and I read the bit about those two novels and found it fascinating. I’ll be going back to read the whole thing, no doubt. I love her writing – every sentence is perfectly formed, just a treat. And thank you for the kind wishes!

    Lilian – I think The Lottery is very exemplary of Jackson (what I’ve read so far). But do try her family memoirs – Life Among The Savages is utterly hilarious.

    Ali – oh I sympathise! I generally never read horror. I have read The Woman In White, but I was 17, I think, and can’t remember a thing about it! I should revisit it one of these days (and clearly not late at night). I found Shirley Jackson really pleasurable to read, scary stuff notwithstanding. It’s more weird than really frightening, only weird doesn’t really account for it either. Ummm, you know it’s frightening, but the writing is so good it’s still a pleasure. But anyway – so many books, so little time – it’s hard enough to get through all the ones that really appeal! And I would be delighted to send you the Rossetti! We’ll talk about that.

    Rebecca – she is a delight, really worth reading. And it doesn’t matter when you read it – good books are good at any time!

    Arti – I still remember Twin Peaks! I saw about two episodes when I was a teenager and they really stayed with me, particularly a dream sequence with a dwarf on a chequered floor that was so odd and yet so flowing that it really did feel dreamlike. I quite understand the uncertainty about horror – I hardly ever read it myself. Well, never apart from this book! But I love your comment about it scaring the author – so true!

  14. I thought this and her We Have Always Lived in the Castle were both really excellent reads. That last scene was really pretty awful, wasn’t it! I don’t know anything about her except for the two books I’ve read–why am I not surprised they pushed her just a little over the edge? She’s not the first author either–isn’t there someone else you wrote about that also went a little mad from the book they were writing (maybe there’s been a number of authors…but now my mind is a blank). One of her short stories is in the book I mentioned–the Best American Short Stories–I will have to at least read that story before I return it I think!

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