Sunday, 16 September 2012

"The Haunting of Hill House," by Shirley Jackson

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I picked up this book from the library on a whim because it is such a classic of the horror genre.  I have big pile of books to read at the moment, and I almost decided to take this one back unread.  However, once I read this brilliant first paragraph, I was hooked and had to read it:
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 so 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.
 In "The Haunting of Hill House," Dr Montague invites a disparate selection of people to a supposedly haunted house.  The one thing they all have in common is that he believes that they might have some level of psychic ability.  Many of those invited don't turn up, but Eleanor does (who was connected to supposed poltergeist activity when she was 12), as does Theodora, who had showed some psychic ability in a laboratory experiment conducted by the doctor.  They are also joined by Luke, who isn't supposed to be psychic but is there as a representative of the family who owns the house. Of course, there are nefarious and dark deeds contained within Hill House's upright walls - and the experiment is darker than Dr Montague had imagined.

When I started reading this book, it occurred to me early on to check the date when it was published (1959).  It is unusual for me to do this - in the main, the books I read are comparatively recent - but I wondered when it was written in terms of the genealogy of the haunted house genre.  My awareness of this date also meant that I began to read it in terms of what I knew of McCarthyism, conformity and the repressive fifties in America.  It's an interesting way to read the book, and especially the interaction between Eleanor (conformist, quieter, always worried by how others see her and paranoid that she is being mocked) and Theodora (more a free-spirit, a new woman, self-possessed but also self-obsessed).  On the cusp of a new decade, Eleanor seemed to represent the old oppressions of society while Theodora was looking to a future of new freedoms.

This is more a horror novel of creeping dread and suggestion than gore which, as a wimpish reader of horror, is how I prefer it.  I read Jackson's novel as essentially a twofold character study.  The first character that Shirley Jackson focuses on is Eleanor, who is a study in downtrodden introversion.  Her life was given over to caring for her ailing, demanding mother and, since her mother's death, she has been living with an equally domineering sister and brother-in-law.  Her life has constantly been on hold to others, and she is a dispossessed character with no home of her own and no secure sense of self.  The other central character is that of the malevolent house itself, which seems to react to its new inhabitants and manipulate them.

Shirley Jackson's novel has been adapted for film twice under the title "The Haunting" - the most recent with Liam Neeson as the doctor - and, in the normal way of these things, the book is much, much better.  If you have seen the film and not been impressed, please don't be put off reading the book.  if you like ghost stories, it's definitely worth it.  


  1. I have been meaning to read this ever since I read Shirley Jackson's We Have always lived in the Castle another remarkable tense little tale and her famous short story The Lottery, you have again reminded me that this is on my list of books worth checking out. I might check out the movies to but I am more of a read the novel kind of person.

  2. This was my first Shirley Jackson, so I might have to check out the others you mentioned - I have heard of The Lottery, but not We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Thank you for mentioning them, and I'll keep an eye out in my local library.

    I tend to go to the book rather than the film more often too, although I have heard that the earlier film adaptation (I think 1963?) is pretty good.