The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House book cover
Rating 9.3/10
These are the people that looked for the ghost, that lived in the house that Jackson built

Shirley Jackson is an author with quite a reputation. Favourite of writers such as Stephen King, Harlan Ellison and Niel Gaimen, and author of several landmark stories in the history of horror and weird psychological fiction, despite having passed away sixty years ago her legacy just seems to keep on growing. Indeed, it’s nice to think a lady who apparently struggled with mental illness and lived a rather haunted life herself finally got the recognition she deserved.

Haunting of Hill House is widely regarded as one of the horror genre’s absolute classics, King calls it a perfect example of the haunted house story, though I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect myself, after all not all classics live up to scrutiny and previously I’d just read Shirley Jackson’s short stories, which ranged from awesome, to good, to slightly incomprehensible. I needn’t have worried, since this is one occasion where the hype is definitely justified.

As the iconic and oft quoted opening paragraph reminds us, Hill House stands alone, yet not empty, and whatever waits there waits in darkness. Doctor John Montague, an anthropologist and part time psychic researcher decides to follow in the grand old Victorian investigative tradition by inviting several people who had previously experienced paranormal phenomena to stay at Hill House over the summer, and so hopefully witness and be able to catalogue some kind of psychic disturbance. The only people to take up the doctor’s invitation are the dreamy and fanciful Eleanor Vance, and the selfish Theodora, together with the indolent Luke Sanderson, a member of the family who own the house. For Eleanor, who has spent her life taking care of an oppressive and demanding mother, the invitation feels like a liberation and a chance to finally step out into the world. Yet, Hill House is a place of subtle evil, and one which has a particular resonance for Eleanor.

The first thing to say about Hill House, is that the writing style is nothing short of exquisite. Jackson uses language like a conductor; skilfully waving her baton to evoke different moods or themes or styles as called for. Indeed, Jackson has that rare gift of being able to write in an understated, sometimes even genteel fashion, then suddenly catch the reader off guard with a sudden observation, a bold statement or something so utterly horrible, ridiculous or beautiful it’s almost shocking. One of my favourite moments is Eleanor’s first sight of Hill House. Following a long description of her car journey, the feeling of freedom, and her lovingly described and beautifully detailed fantasies along the way, Jackson throws an absolute left hook and tells you the house is vile! Then proceeds to describe in detail, from its Lovecraftian angles to its aggressive colour scheme, just how profoundly vile it is, and just what sort of a jolt said vileness gives poor Eleanor.

Jackson also has the gift of blending her description into characterisation. While most of the book happens from Eleanor’s perspective, we are often not entirely sure what Eleanor’s perspective actually shows us, indeed an endless question throughout Hill House is how much of what is going on is due to the house, how much due to Eleanor’s own psychic abilities, and how much simply Eleanor’s own perceptions, perceptions which get ever more nightmarishly skewed as the story continues.

Noted Star Wars reviewer and part time psychopath Mr. Plinkett once said the test of a complex character is to see how much you can discuss of a character’s personality without mentioning any external details such as their physical appearance and occupation, and rarely have I seen characters about whom there is so much to say.

Eleanor is a profoundly lonely and rather childlike woman, oppressed by her long service to her mother, then more recently by her domineering elder sister. Desperate to be accepted and liked and to become something more than she has been, frequently retreating into reveries and fantasies of a different life. Yet, despite her shyness quite able to be witty, relaxed and playful when she feels accepted. For all that Eleanor is a likable, even lovable character, still she becomes  progressively more paranoid, clingy and unstable as the book continues, indeed Eleanor’s mental state and how it interacts with Hill House could make for an entire thesis on its own.

The supporting players are just as complex. Theodora is bubbly, playful and at times effusively caring (especially of the sheltered Eleanor), yet also highly vain and selfish, with a constant need to be the centre of attention and a decidedly spiteful streak. Luke, initially appearing simply a witty, indolent and slightly thoughtless fellow, shows peculiar decencies and complications as the book continues; even the stoic and methodical Doctor Montague reveals some quite surprising facts about himself and his interest in Hill House.

Yet, the book is more than a simple character study with occasional shocks, as it has its share of comic relief (often provided by the wonderfully jobsworth housekeeper Mrs. Dudley). Even in her short stories, rarely have I found a writer who can go from horrific to comic with quite as much ease as Shirley Jackson, and in a novel, especially such a grim one as Hill House, these changes definitely stand out.

There is no denying the book is a little dated, indeed I suspect even for 1959, the book’s style, and to an extent its characterisation would’ve been seen as a trifle old fashioned. Both Theodora and Eleanor come across as frivolous and somewhat childish, an odd fact for women in their thirties. Though to what extent this is their own personalities, Eleanor being by her history naïve and sheltered and Theodora obviously spoiled, and to what extent the influence of the house I am not sure. Similarly, there are occasional moments of nuance which need to be taken in context, for example where Eleanor is desperate for a confidence from Luke, and intimates she might be attracted to him, something which these days seems fairly casual, but probably had far more significance in a time when telling someone the way you felt about them was tantamount to a proposal of marriage. Theodora’s friendship with Eleanor also has a tinge both of sisterly and possibly bisexual affection which seems strangely fervent to modern readers, though again how much of this, like Doctor Montague’s wonderfully earnest pursuit of scientific enquiry was just part of the gothic style I’m not sure.

It’s also notable that the two most blatantly and obviously sexist characters are also two comically incompetent arseholes, who provided a rather refreshing chance to have a good laugh at the idiocy of sexist attitudes.

For all the comedy though, there is no denying that Hill House is one of the most profoundly and deeply scary books I’ve read for quite some time. Whilst Jackson doesn’t descend to schlocky slasher type spectacle (no lurching corpses or ectoplasmic apparitions here), its remarkable how many classically scary moments I recognized. Knocking (or rather hammering), on doors, noting disturbances in possessions, sudden messages and even one trip into a surreal, otherworldly  landscape.

What makes these matters all the more frightening, is that alongside them we see Eleanor’s steady disintegration paralleled by unpleasant changes in the dynamics of the group, ranging from thoughtless cruelty to ignorance to direct and viciously applied spite, though again, how much of this is real, how much the influence of the House, how much Eleanor’s subconscious working against her and how much paranoia we’re not sure.

With its short length (less than 7 hours), compelling style and constant scares, for the most part the Haunting of Hill House was far more readable than you’d expect. That being said, some of the final scenes did drag slightly. Partly this was because of some expertly delivered sleight of hand Jackson pulls towards the end, however it also felt as if she was delaying the inevitable.

Ironically, one of the book’s main strengths also serves as its main weakness. The very ambiguity of many aspects of the plot, while it means different interpretations and intuitions are possible (at the same time leaves one or two implied questions unanswered. For instance, part of the history of the house involves two sisters who were brought to live there as children. Whilst we inadvertently find out the name of one sister through a book in the library; which also reveals some disturbing things about the sister’s father, we never learn the other’s name. Similarly, when one of the sisters became old and employed a village girl to take care of her, a girl who later hanged herself, the girl is only ever referred to as “the little companion”.

Given several suggestions of Eleanor’s significance to the house, and indeed the way the others take to calling her “Nel” almost out of the blue, my lady and I were fairly sure either one of the sisters, or the little companion bore her name, but if this was the case Jackson simply leaves the truth up to reader interpretation.

Then again, the ambiguity and possible different takes on events do make for interesting discussion. In Danse Macabre; Stephen King’s review of the horror genre, King offers an entirely different opinion of the events of Hill House, seeing Eleanor as a profound narcissist who descends into a horror of her own mind’s making, whereas my lady and I saw her as a desperate, lonely if slightly unstable woman who has the misfortune to run across something which strikes very bad resonances with her. Whilst obviously we can’t know which if either idea Jackson intended, I can only applaud the fact that unlike many writers who write intentionally vague, or ambiguous stories intending for different interpretations, Jackson is a good enough author to still give us a complete and satisfying, if not necessarily comfortable resolution to the plot.

All in all, the Haunting of Hill House, is one of those classics which absolutely deserves its accolade. Indeed, while I have not seen the recent Netflix series; which apparently has very little to do with Jackson’s novel, at least it might help bring in a few more tourists to look around Jackson’s house of horrors, since while its stood for sixty years, Hill House is definitely still worth a visit, just don't expect to leave it unchanged, since whatever Hill House contains, it has the very disturbing and quite appropriately horrible habit of getting inside your brain and staying with you.

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