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.

6 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

  1. christophermtantillo January 30, 2016 / 10:39 AM

    Qwendalyn, great post. I feel like most everyone had the same opinions that the characters were portrayed nicely, but the horror was lacking. I also agree with that thought. I loved how you pointed out the scene were Eleanor is holding (she thinks) Theo’s hand until the lights come on. That was the most chilling aspect of this entire book, and if only Jackson continued that or pushed the envelope further….it could have made for one chilling third act of her book. But sadly, that was the crux of the hauntings, and the novel never really did go anywhere from that point.

    I also love what you said about Eleanor being human. I felt the same way. While yes, this novel is filled with classic tropes (probably before they were tropes) and stereotypes (also probably before they were considered stereotypes), I did like how each character was portrayed by Jackson. And I felt sorry for Eleanor. In my blog, I focused on this aspect of home and family and depression. I think Eleanor was depressed, and showed signs of suicide that no one else picked up on besides Mrs. Montague when she advised that Arthur should drive her back to town to make sure she got there safe. Because ultimately she wanted a place she belonged, to be noticed. She got neither. And if only they realized this before it was too late, what would have happened?

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    • grcope January 31, 2016 / 8:13 PM

      Chris, I agree. Eleanor was most likely depressed and someone should have realized it before it was too late. I wonder, too, how the story might have turned out differently, but our haunted houses always seem to require a sacrifice, don’t they?

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  2. Chad Pritt January 31, 2016 / 5:25 PM

    Gwen, you touched (pun intended) on the creepiest part of the book for me. When Eleanor realizes she couldn’t have been holding Theo’s hand. In the end though, it just became a one-off incident, something never fully explored.

    I actually enjoyed the fifties speak. It harkens back to a simpler, yet more formal time. A time when we still dressed up to get on a plane or go to church. By today’s standards, her use of the language gives it an almost literary feel, and I think if a modern reader can get through it unencumbered by the formal prose, they should be able to pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

    Maybe I’m not a very attentive reader, or maybe I don’t retain things well enough, but I never noticed the same paragraph use for this book and ‘Salem’s Lot.” I knew it looked damned familiar though, but I chocked it up to being a classic book.

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  3. grcope January 31, 2016 / 8:10 PM

    Chad, I’m glad other people feel the same way about that one scene in Hill House. It’s always given me chills. And as for the ‘Salem’s Lot catch – I actually dug out my copy to check it out because I thought I’d remembered it. Odd, really, that he didn’t use the quote for The Shining, since that seemed like more of a haunted house, as opposed to the Marsten House in ‘Salem’s Lot, but there ya go. Also, I know it’s a “thing” to think of the Fifties as a simpler time, but believe me, honey – the Fifties were a special kind of hell for anyone who wasn’t a straight, white, Christian male. Shudder!

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  4. Mark February 4, 2016 / 11:25 AM

    Gwen your assessment of cultural commonplace references in dialogue was helpful. Despite reading much set and written in and around the 50’s, I would not have known that some of the dialogue was “in” then.

    As you point in (and others in the RIG have as well), the inclusion of Mrs. Montague and Arthur toward the end of the book is both unnecessary and completely irrelevant. What is the value of adding characters after the 3/4 mark, especially when they in no way add or resolve or complicate the central conflict…of which there arguably is none.

    Your mention of period-specific parapsychological materials is yet ANOTHER relevant point (I critiqued why a Dr. would allow the deteriorating mental health of a “patient” continue as well).

    In order to prevent rambling on points already under the spotlight, we’ll leave it with this!

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    • grcope February 4, 2016 / 7:11 PM

      Mark, you brought up a point that gets quickly glossed over in both The Haunting of Hill House and Hell House – Dr. Montague was an anthropologist, and Dr. Barrett was a physicist. NOT medical doctors! And yet, they are treated by the authors and characters as if they were, and indeed, act like M.D.s to a certain extent. Dr. Montague is diagnosing Eleanor’s mental health (or lack thereof), and Dr. Barrett is quick with the first aid kit when Florence is scratched. It reminded me of all those old Fifties science fiction movies when there were generic “scientists” – not physicists, or chemists, or engineers, or biologists – just scientists.

      Liked by 1 person

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