I read The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson at the end of September and it is one of the books that’s in my ‘to be reviewed pile’, which is getting far too big, as I keep reading book after book without writing about them!
About the book:
It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, the lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own. (Goodreads)
This is a horror story, but thank goodness there is no gore. Instead it is macabre and has a chilling atmosphere. It’s more of a psychological study than a horror story and as such I don’t think it’s as good or as terrifying as her later book, We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
Dr. Montague, a doctor of philosophy with a keen interest in the supernatural and psychic manifestations had been looking for a ‘haunted’ house to investigate all his life. So, when he heard the stories about the strange goings on at Hill House he decided he would spend three months living there and see what happened, and he set about finding other people to stay there with him.
Eleanor is the main character in the book, next to the House itself, and what happens is told from Eleanor’s point of view. As a child Eleanor had once seemed to activate a poltergeist, although she doesn’t remember that. As an adult she had spent eleven years looking after her invalid mother and it had left her a lonely, embittered spinster of thirty two. After her mother died she sees Dr. Montague’s invitation to spend the summer at Hill House as something she had been waiting for all her life, an opportunity to change her life. Theodora is not at all like Eleanor – her ‘world was one of delight and soft colors’ and after arguing with her friend with whom she shared an apartment, she accepted Dr. Montague’s invitation too. The third person to accept was Luke, the nephew of the owner of Hill House, who would one day inherit the House. He was a liar and also a thief.
These four people arrived at Hill House where they were met by the Dudleys – Mr Dudley, the surly caretaker and his dour wife, the housekeeper. Neither of them live in the house but having told the guests which rooms they were to sleep in, and the arrangements for meals, they leave them alone at night. They leave before it gets dark.
Eleanor realises she should have turned back at the gate and a voice inside her tells her to ‘get away from here, get away.’ There are stories about the tragedies connected with the house, scandal, madness and a suicide – when a girl hanged herself from the turret in the tower. Dr Montague believes
the evil is in the house itself and that it has enchained and destroyed its people and their lives, it is a place of contained ill will.
Strange things happen, doors open themselves, the walls and floors are at odd angles, the rooms all connect so Eleanor and the others lose their sense of direction and get lost, the rooms they want to find eluding them. There are places where there are ‘cold spots’, and strange noises scare them at night. The tone shifts from the bright sunlight outside to the chill and foreboding of the house. Nothing is what it first appears to be and as I read on I felt I was sinking into the story in an unpleasant way – Eleanor becomes increasingly unstable and I began to realise that she is an unreliable narrator. The story took several ambiguous turns, so that I was not quite sure what was really happening. Was the house really haunted or was it all an effect of what was going on in their minds, or was it all just in Eleanor’s fevered imagination?
The book is well written, full of confusion and misdirection. There are moments of pure fear, a sense of excitement, friendship and even humour with the arrival of Dr Montague’s wife and her pompous friend Arthur Parker, and their ridiculous efforts with a ‘planchette’, a device similar to a Ouija Board. I thought was an odd interlude in the story, and not really necessary. The best parts are, I think, the descriptions of Hill House – the dark horror at the centre of the story.
No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a manic juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice. …
It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fir 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. (pages 34 – 35)