The classic supernatural thriller by an author who helped define the genre. First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. 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, his 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.
“I am like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster, she thought, and the monster feels my tiny little movements inside.”
Hill House is suffocating in its isolation–the house is buried in hills far away from the nearest town. The house’s architecture is imperfect, the crookedness throwing one’s balance just a little bit off. The urban legends of the house’s tragic history are dark and ripe for a haunted house story. But is the house actually haunted? Is there some supernatural force that drives the inhabitants to madness? Or perhaps the hauntings are the product of a disturbed mind?
This book is absolutely brilliant in its ambiguity. I loved that things aren’t very direct, leaving the reader to decide how to interpret the story for themselves. A reader’s imagination is a writer’s best tool.
One of the first things that struck me was the unusual dialogue between characters, particularly Eleanor. At times it felt like characters were talking at the other person rather than with them. This behavior is a sign of a person that is unable to relate or empathize with other people.
It becomes clear not long after this that there’s something not quite right about Eleanor. She’s lonely and depressed, she lies constantly about her life and desperately seeks approval. She reassures herself constantly that she belongs at Hill House with the other people there and struggles with her attempts to make connections with the other guests. As the story goes on Eleanor perceives everyone else as being both loving and cruel. She sneers at Theo for trying to steal attention away from her out of some conceived notion of jealousy. Eleanor can only view relationships as being built on dependency, she is a textbook definition of an unreliable narrator.
I won’t go into too much more of my thoughts because I don’t want to spoil the plot. It’s definitely not an average ghost story and those looking for more visceral horror will probably be disappointed. The plot is thick with metaphor and the slow-burn while it worked for me may be too slow for others. Regardless, I loved this book and completely understand why it is held in such high regard and the more I think about it, the more my love for it grows. There were points where my gut was in knots with anxiety and anticipation and I just have to admire Jackson’s master craft with her prose.
Strengths: Extremely clever, slow-burn terror, ambiguous and open to interpretation
Weaknesses: Indirect and slow plot, extremely dense with metaphor