I’m not a huge horror buff, but I do have my favorites. As far as movies go, I loved Rose Red and The Haunting (1999). Yes, the 1999 version. I know it’s not really a good movie and you probably think I have terrible taste, but chalk it up to nostalgia. The reason these were my favorites were because they didn’t focus too much on gore and I enjoy a good story about haunted houses. It wasn’t until last week when my roommate and I were chatting about horror movies and I decided to show him Rose Red that I learned both movies were loosely, and I mean very loosely, based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. I immediately downloaded the ebook and began reading.
I was hooked with the first paragraph. For those of you who haven’t read it, it states:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
This introduction sets the theme for a unique story. Unlike most haunted house stories, this isn’t about ghosts or spirits lurking around. Instead, Jackson creates a story about a house that is simply evil. I loved this unique premise and it added many layers to her novel.
The story starts out with some background about Dr. Montague who wants to go on a summer-long research trip to Hill House. He wants to bring people with paranormal backgrounds and settles on Eleanor and Theodora. The house’s heir, Luke, also joins them. At this point, the novel switches and stays with Eleanor’s point of view. We learn she has no friends and has spent much of her time caring for her mother who passed away just before the story begins.
Throughout the story there are creepy moments, but you can never tell if they are manifestations in the house or merely disturbing fragments of Eleanor’s imagination. This is what makes the story so wonderful. Jackson careful writes a multi-layered plot that leaves you constantly wondering what is meant to be real. It is truly a psychological horror.
My only qualm with the novel is that it just wasn’t scary. I even read it in a dark room at night and sitting alone, and never experienced an unnerving moment. I found it on several lists as one of the most frightening novels every written, but, for me, this just wasn’t the case. I may just be hard to scare, but this aspect still left me disappointed.
I liked that you get a small introduction to the character of Dr. Montague before switching to Eleanor. He is very academically oriented, and particular curious about this house. We can tell right away that he lives for his work.
After switching to Eleanor, we begin to learn more about her and the other characters through her eyes. Jackson does a wonderful job in character development, especially with Eleanor. In the book, Jackson describes Hill House as being slightly off. Where we would expect 90 degree angles, they are 87 degrees. The stairs are just slightly uneven. This creates a feeling of uneasiness for the characters. Jackson uses this same technique in her character development. There is something that is slightly off with the character of Eleanor that makes the reader uneasy, which is a very clever tactic on Jackson’s part. This makes for an unreliable narrator and is the reason we cannot know if Hill House is actually evil, if Eleanor is being driven mad, or a combination of the two. Critics have taken both sides and it is entirely open to interpretation.
I have zero qualms with the style of this book. As a matter of fact, I may have to declare Shirley Jackson one of the best authors I have ever read.
In the characters section, I described the way the novel can house multiple interpretations. This is a standard characteristic other novels also written during the postmodernism period. I’m not usually a fan of postmodernism, but Jackson has changed my opinion. She used these techniques in a way that adds to the story, instead of using them in a way that is jarring, solely for the purpose of not being modernist.
She also uses several clever aspects of symbolism. One being that Dr. Montague’s wife claims that a spirit will repeat important phrases multiple times in order to make a point. Jackson uses this technique by making Eleanor’s character repeat the same phrase, “Journeys end in lover’s meeting” throughout the novel, which creates the effect that she may be the one who is possessed, though again, we can’t know for sure.
Another clever technique was Jackson’s use of irony. She mixes in the idea that Eleanor is looking for a home and a safe place on her way to Hill House, suggesting that this house could be it, despite it being often described as chilling and unsafe.
The last major plus is the way she uses personifcation to describe Hill House. This is important in making the house appear evil, since there are next actual spirits present.
Bottom Line (4.7/5)
Apart from not really being scary and ruining my favorite movies for me, this book has become one of my favorites. Beautiful writing, clever symbolism, and a fantastic story make The Haunting of Hill House a thrilling read.