Book Review: The Haunting of Hill House

“Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within”

Considered the ultimate haunted house story, I’m embarrassed to say Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House had passed me by up until now. This is an oversight on my part, because Jackson’s 1959 novel is stunning.

The Haunting of Hill House:

The reclusive Eleanor Vance has spent a lifetime caring for her invalid mother and suppressing childhood memories of a poltergeist-like experience. Shortly after her mother’s death, she gets a letter from a Dr Montague. Using people with paranormal experiences, he intends to prove the existence of the supernatural. Alongside the only other invitee to accept, Theodora, a fashionable artist, Eleanor is to be isolated at the house with Dr Montague and Luke Sanderson, the heir to Hill House. They are attended during the day by Mr and Mrs Dudley, who refuse to stay in the house after dark.

Soon upon arrival, it becomes clear that not everything is right with Hill House. Or perhaps it is Eleanor that isn’t quite right anymore…

First of all, The Haunting of Hill House is not without flaws. The prose is a bit out-dated in parts and the banter between the characters somewhat excessive. Nevertheless, Jackson excels at creating atmosphere, which more than makes up for the aspects that perhaps have aged less well.

There are no ghostly manifestations in Hill House, no rattling chains, no ectoplasm. It’s more subtle than that, with a distinct psychological bent, but the events that unfold are blunt enough: sounds in the night, banging on doors, blood spattered about. There can be no doubt that Hill House is a festering place, but there can also be no doubt that it begins to fester in Eleanor’s mind. The blend of subtle and blunt is superb.

Hill House is frequently anthropomorphised (e.g. “…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.” (Eleanor Vance)). Perhaps it is this vivid description that has led to many interpreting the house itself as the root of the invisible presence Eleanor feels moving through the corridors. Is Hill House evil in itself, or is there an evil presence in the house? It is never obvious who or what is haunting Hill House, although careful reading might suggest a likely suspect. This ambiguity is, in my opinion, one of the strengths of the book and perhaps the reason continues to capture the imagination of readers.

In the end, we are treated to an unsettling house with an eerily claustrophobic past, and a main character that, as the story unfolds, mirrors the house in both respects, which drives the novel to its inevitable and bleak conclusion.

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