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!