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[575] The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson

hill

” The sense was that it wanted to consume us, take us into itself, make us a part of the house, maybe—oh, dear. I thought I knew what I was saying, but I’m doing it very badly. ” (Ch.5, p.139)

It’s obvious that The Haunting of Hill House is set in a haunted mansion. But unlike most haunted house stories now, the tormented inhabitants of Hill House do not discover some secret just before the biggest, most powerful ghostly manifestation at the climax of the narrative. Jackson shucks all such convention in which the discoveries, well executed, are a way to explain the horror of the house. In this novel, no questions are answered with a creepy story; no solution or cure for the haunting appears. Some houses are just born bad.

It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed. (Ch.2, p.35)

The story is simple enough: a paranormal investigator named Dr. John Montague decides to probe a notorious haunted house. To assist his investigation, he invites two women, Theodora and the complex protagonist, Eleanor Vance, because they both experienced supernatural events earlier in their lives. Heir to Hill House, Luke Sanderson, is also roped in to supervise. Under the rental agreement, the housekeeper, Mrs. Dudley, who lives off-site six miles away, is to serve food at designated times of the day and takes leave before dark.

It is such a blessing to know that the beings in this house are only waiting for an opportunity to tell their stories and free themselves from the burden of their sorrow. (Ch.7, p.195)

The house, abandoned to disrepair, has a sinister history. The master had no luck with his wives. After his death, the two orphaned daughters grew up with a governess. A lawsuit over the propriety of the house broke out between the companion who has inherited from the elder spinster sister and the younger sister. There has been talk of people being walled in alive. The House is uninviting at its first glance—it is vile, diseased. Upon arrival, with the darkness, the sickening sold, and the inexplicable noises, Eleanor loathes it but realizes she as no choice, for she has nowhere to go after spending the past ten years reluctantly caring for an ailing mother who banged on the wall all night long.

Since Jackson never ties her narrative in a bow, no specific answer to the reasons and causes for the supernatural manifestations are given. You don’t see objects flying around midair or ghost emerging off a painting. But there is an unusual frigid place on the floor, doors refusing to stay open, and bloody writing on the wall. So the possibilities abound. Eleanor could be the target or the inducer of the haunting. Everything could also have happened inside her head. Which is why The Haunting of Hill House begs re-reading over time (it’s brought on by John Harwood’s lackluster book that uses Eleanor and Dr. Montague as his characters). The book relies more on terror than horror, which, at least to me, induces a creepiness out of atmosphere. It refuses to answer your questions other than that the guests are trapped psychologically in a house born bad.

246 pp. Penguin. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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5 Responses

  1. YES! I love this stuff. I don’t need any bows. If you want another fun, unexplained and totally creepy haunted house book, read The House Next Door.

    • Right! This is exactly how The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters was written. Suggestiveness. Psychological implication. I’ll definitely check out The House Next Door!

  2. If you have the chance, watch the 1963 movie version with Julie Harris. Excellent adaptation.

  3. Will do! Thanks!

  4. One of my favorite books of all time. I love Shirley Jackson and have yet to be disapointed by her. And, while I didn’t think of it at the time, I agree with your comparison to The Little Stranger.

    If you haven’t already read it, Jackson’s collection of short stories that includes “The Lottery” is a great read as well. There are some true gems in there.

    And I agree with Greg, the 1963 movie with Julie Harris and Claire Bloom is amazing. The remake with Catherine Zeta Jones can be skipped.

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