BOOK REVIEW: The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

book cover Haunting Hill House_

The Haunting of Hill House is one of those classic tales that every horror fan reads, or at least knows they should read.  This story, written in 1959, is the foundation for much of the haunted house fiction that exists today.  It inspired two movies: “The Haunting”, made in 1963, and the remake, also called “The Haunting,” made in 1999. It also established the premise for all the modern ghost hunting TV shows, like “Ghost Hunters”, “Ghost Adventures”, “The Dead Files”, etc. – a group of people gather at a site reported to be haunted and try to gather evidence of paranormal activity. No less a horror fan than Stephen King used the whole first paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s novel to kick off one of his own haunted house stories, ‘Salem’s Lot (King, 1).

So what is it about, this story? It’s about a very informal, by today’s standards, ghost hunt. Dr. Montague, an anthropologist with a secret passion for the supernatural, invites a group of people with prior paranormal experience to spend the summer at a large, country mansion he has rented. The mansion, Hill House, has been empty for some time and is reputed to be haunted. By summer’s end, Montague hopes to be able to bring back irrefutable, scientific proof of the existence of ghosts.  With him are his two assistants, Eleanor, who had a poltergeist experience as a child, and Theodora, who astounded the college psychical research lab with her card-guessing abilities. Also along for the ride is Luke, a “liar” and a “thief” (Jackson 9). He is also heir to Hill House, and sent by his aunt to keep an eye on the property. Mr. and Mrs. Dudley (the granite-faced caretaker and his equally dour housekeeper/cook wife) round out the cast for most of the book. Then when the story is almost over, the doctor’s wife, Mrs. Montague, and her boy toy … er assistant, Arthur show up.

The story is told from Eleanor’s point of view, and it’s often difficult to tell what is real and what is imagined. Despite her initial impression: “Hill House is vile, it is diseased” (33), Eleanor changes her mind once Theodora shows up. “Theo” is everything Eleanor, “Nell,” is not: confident, pretty, playful, and flirtatious. Theo also has a mysterious roommate waiting back at her very own apartment. Eleanor, on the other hand, is lonely, awkward, repressed, and basically homeless. The two strike up the kind of “summer fling” friendship that often occurs during cruises, vacations, or similar ordeals.

The two men, Dr. Montague and Luke, take turns answering the women’s questions, and fulfilling at various times the roles of father/mentor/big brother/love interest. This was, after all, written in the Fifties when men were men, and women were neurotic.

The actual supernatural events that occur in this book are few, but well portrayed. I especially liked the scene where Eleanor and Theo are in Theo’s room on her bed, clinging to each other as a crashing BOOM, BOOM,BOOM attacks the bedroom door.  The other chilling bit of scariness occurs when the Thing in the Hall returns and Eleanor sits terrified in the dark for a long time, Theo clutching her hand so tightly it hurts. Then suddenly the light is on, and Theo is sitting up, half asleep, all the way across the room.  Freaked, Eleanor says, “Good God – whose hand was I holding?” (163). Good stuff.

However, except for the paranormal elements in Hill House there is not much for a modern reader to like about this ghost story. In many ways it’s dated: the dialogue consists of a lot of “witty” Fifties-style banter, favored by the middle class; the characters have become stereotypes, and even the most thoroughly fleshed-out character, Eleanor, can be seen as a stereotype –just another repressed, neurotic female; a thirty-two year old virgin; and even Dr. Montague’s “man of science” act is lame by today’s standards. Where are his EVP recorders, his K2 meters, or MEL meters, or Ghost Boxes, or IR lights, or even his Laser Grid Scope?!

Despite these flaws, Jackson has written a remarkably unique ghost story. Love her or hate her, Eleanor’s vulnerability, loneliness, and fear do make her sympathetically human. So when the house singles her out for special treatment and mockingly dangles before her the one thing she wants more than anything else – someplace she belongs, a home – you hurt for her. At least a little.  And that is why The Haunting of Hill House has managed to retain its place of honor in horror fiction after all these years.

 

 

Jackson, Shirley, The Haunting of Hill House. New York: Penguin Books, 1984. Print.

King, Stephen, ‘Salem’s Lot. New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1975. Print.