Title: The Haunting of Hill House
Author: Shirley Jackson
Published: 2009, Penguin Classics (Originally published 1959)
I don’t recall the first time I heard of Shirley Jackson, but I suppose it was when I was searching for good classic short horror stories online. Soon after that, I borrowed a very early edition of The Lottery; or The Adventures of James Harris from the local university library and loved it (note: I’ll be re-reading this soon and I’m hoping to write a review of it here). I thought it was one of the most interesting, effective, terrifying collections of short stories I’d ever read. After that, I kept Jackson’s name in my head when searching for new books to read and the one title that I kept seeing wherever I looked was The Haunting of Hill House. This novel, one of Jackson’s best-known works, is now widely regarded as one of the best ghost stories ever. Now that I have finally read it, I can see why. It reads like a masterclass in psychological horror/suspense fiction. It’s compelling and engaging and it’s certainly one of the most frightening and entertaining books I’ve ever read.
From the perfect opening paragraph of the story, which masterfully sets the tone for the rest of the book, I felt like I was being slowly pulled into Hill House – perhaps not strictly against my will, but certainly with an increasing sense of claustrophobia and dread. The premise of the story involves a Dr. Montague, a scientist with an interest in supernatural phenomena, who invites “assistants” to stay with him in Hill House for a summer, to observe any strange incidents which might occur. Only two of the assistants reply and head for Hill House – Eleanor Vance, a shy, sheltered woman who is coping with the death of her mother and her overbearing sister, and Theodora, a confident young woman with a joyful spirit of freedom and curiosity. Eleanor and Theodora were supposedly chosen to take part based on their history of minor supernatural phenomena occurring in their childhoods. Another person is also to stay in the house with them, a young man named Luke Sanderson, a relative of the current owners of the mansion.
Eleanor is our protagonist and we see the vast majority of the story through her eyes. Even from the first chapters of the book, we realise that she is possible not entirely reliable as a narrator – she appears to adopt details from those she observes on her journey to Hill House, and weaves them into her own background. The details of the death of her mother are not made clear at the start of the novel, and we are not given very much information about her life, other than the strange episode of telekinesis which occurs between her and her sister in her youth. This makes us immediately skeptical of Eleanor’s aims and desires in the first sections of the novel, but Jackson manages to make Eleanor a fully fleshed-out character despite her mysterious past. Even though the reader is made privy to her conflicting stories and histories, I felt as though I was warming to her from the very beginning. She is something of a tragic character, even in the beginning of the story, and I found myself warming to her more and more as the story progressed. Her journey to Hill House, using the specific instructions given to her by Montague, is a pure joy to read, as she makes her way past huge fields and through tiny villages, stopping off at diners and remote houses to savour her first really significant solo journey. However, even as we travel with Eleanor and experience her happiness at seeing these new places, there is always the sense of some great unknown, some strange sense of uneasiness which accompanies her. As with the characters in Jackson’s other short stories (my other only reference point so far), the mixture of happiness and freedom is always offset by a sense of claustrophobia, dread, and sadness.
As we are introduced to the other visitors to Hill House the text begins to subtly shift, and elements of misdirection and confusion begin to creep into the story. Initially, Jackson’s style of quickfire conversation between her characters can cause the reader to feel as if they are at times unsure of who is speaking at that moment – certainly the similarity between the names Eleanor and Theodora was a cause of some confusion to me to start with. As with Eleanor’s want to confuse and change her personal history, the style and direction of the text starts to catch the reader off-guard. What the characters experience in the strange Hill House, we start to experience in the text. For example, the house is revealed to have been built by a Mr. Hugh Crain, who designed the house with each angle and plane slightly off-centre, meaning that the interior rooms of the house at times resemble a circular labyrinth, with characters falling back on themselves as they try to understand the house’s unique architecture. I felt the same way about the text, as Jackson begins to insert chapters of only a few paragraphs or so, or allowing the story to take great leaps in time between the character’s regimented meals, leaving me feeling as though I had caught only part of a conversation by accident, or remained stagnant for hours, when what I expected was a direct continuation of Eleanor’s journey.
Speaking of Eleanor’s journey, we are quickly introduced to what could possibly be called the story’s mantra – “journeys end in lovers meeting”, a section from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (though that is not made clear in the text). Eleanor repeats these lines frequently in the text, and whilst we are aware of the importance of Eleanor’s journey, the “lovers meeting” part is deliberately left vague. Who are the lovers? Is Eleanor on a journey to find love? Does she actually want her journey to end? The words of course begin to take on more significance as we read of the relationships that begin to flourish in Hill House – primarily the relationship between Eleanor and Theodora. As the novel creeps towards its climax, the full effect of Hill House on Eleanor (or is it the other way around?) becomes clear to us. Our closeness to Eleanor is threatened in a variety of different ways, mostly regarding Theodora’s treatment of her new friend, and the group’s general attitude to Eleanor’s increasingly disturbing behaviour.
Whilst the plot and the characterisation are of a very high standard in this novel, the sections detailing Hill House’s apparently supernatural manifestations were the biggest delight for me. One of the earliest incidents in the book occurs during the second night of their stay, and the descriptions of a shadowy black dog roaming the hallways, and the increasingly loud knocking and tapping on the bedrooms are truly frightening. Again, we the majority of this through Eleanor, so as the novel continues, the frightening sections become all the more effective when we realise that perhaps there is an element of Eleanor allowing (or willing?) these things to happen.
I would highly recommend this to anyone at all, and I think I will be recommending it to people for the next few months at least. The plot, characters, literary style, setting and language are all highly compelling and despite the terror and fear that lurks within the pages, it was a complete pleasure to read. If you’ve not read this before, give the first page a try next time you’re in your local bookshop and prepare to be enticed by the wonder and terror of Hill House.