Review: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Author: Shirley Jackson
Title: The Haunting of Hill House
Format/Source: eBook/Amazon
Published: 1959
Publisher: Penguin
Length: 182 pages
Genre: Suspense
Why I Read: Loved We Have Always Lived in the Castle; part of Estella Society readalong
Read If You’re: A lover of a terror or haunted houses, but prefer modern over Victorian
Quote: I would like to watch her dying, Eleanor thought, and smiled back and said, ‘Don’t be silly.’
Rating:  ★★★★★ [ratings guide]
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Please note: This review contains minor spoilers in the discussion of mood and character personalities/development. Readalong discussion at end.

The Haunting of Hill House is my favourite type of classic. With its Victorian heart of a terrific (in all senses of the word) haunted house, modern prose, and a small but sharp cast of characters, I think this is a tale that will stay with me for a long time. If you haven’t yet read The Haunting of Hill House, I urge you to read it now as we move toward the heart of autumn and the season of all things spooky. This is a story with which you should curl up under a blanket and feel your heartbeat quicken with each turn of the page.

Eleanor struck a chord with me. She is the main reason why this book trumps We Have Always Lived in the Castle for me. I’ve never found a character more relatable. It’s amusing now to think I initially imagined Eleanor as a crochety old lady! I’m not sure if this is because I associate the name Eleanor with the character from the Inkworld trilogy, or if that is the impression Jackson intended – the reader experiences the Eleanor burdened by her mother, her sister and her brother-in-law, then comes to know Eleanor as she wishes or knows herself to truly be. I enjoyed watching Eleanor spring to life as she drove out to Hill House.

On the main street of one village she passed a vast house, pillared and walled, with shutters over the windows and a pair of stone lions guarding the steps, and she thought that perhaps she might live there, dusting the lions each morning and patting their heads good night. Time is beginning this morning in June, she assured herself, but it is a time that is strangely new and of itself; in these few seconds I have lived a lifetime in a house with two lions in front. (14%)

Ah, Eleanor, now come to life, crack that bitter exterior and shine through! The above passage made me fall in love with Eleanor. At first she just delighted me, but I quickly began to see much of myself in her. I rarely empathize with characters, that’s just not how I am, but there were moments while reading when I actually cringed because I knew I had thought and felt the exact same as Eleanor at one time. I highlighted many passages and made a note at one point – “Geez, Eleanor, cutting it close to home.” This was a new reading experience for me. I’ll leave it to you to guess which bits resonated with me. I didn’t want to think Eleanor could lose her mind, so I think it took me longer than the average reader to recognize that was a possibility (as opposed to the her being haunted). I was happy to believe it was the house, it was the house haunting her, but by the end it’s clear the house affected Eleanor differently from the others. I discuss this further below, as part of the Readalong discussion.

I will raise white cats and sew white curtains for the windows and sometimes come out of my door to go to the store to buy cinnamon and tea and bread. (15%)

A dog slept uneasily in the shade against a wall, a woman stood in a doorway across the street and looked at Eleanor, and two young boys lounged against a fence, elaborately silent. Eleanor, who as afraid of strange dogs and jeering women and young hoodlums, went quickly into the diner, clutching her pocketbook and her car keys. (16%)

I would never have suspected it of myself, she thought, laughing still; everything is different, I am a new person, very far from home. (17%).

The limited cast of characters pleased me. I generally prefer this focused approach, where I can really come to know a handful of characters (a notable exception being the Unwind dystology, which has a host of fantastic characters, some of who only appear for a couple pages). Eleanor stands out as the central character, but her three companions can hold their own. I liked how they play off one another, and I liked watching their relationships morph as their time at Hill House progresses. The character relationships reminded me, afterwards, of Never Let Me Go (some similarities between Eleanor and Kathy, Theodora and Ruth, Luke and Tommy).

Theodora is the next strongest character after Eleanor. Oh, the tension between those two! When Theodora was first introduced, I thought “Oh dear, these two will be at odds for the whole story and that will quickly grow tiresome” but I was wrong. They got along very well, maybe too well, so that I began to wonder “Are they forcing their friendship as a coping mechanism?” but as I came to know the characters better, I believed more in their friendship. Ah, but then along came a crack. Eleanor and Theodora’s personalities have a fundamental difference, and the house doesn’t let them overcome that difference easily (in my opinion). Only retrospectively have I come to understand that Eleanor’s characterization of Theodora could be twisted and tainted by Hill House. I always take narrators’ words at face value. If Eleanor thinks Theodora is wicked, then Theodora is wicked. This is why I am ‘bad’ at reading unreliable narrators – usually when a twist is revealed I’m totally taken aback (good), but with this sort of book it means I miss out on nuances or the underlying story (not so good).

If I have one tiny critique of this book (if you held my toes over a fire and forced me to say), it’s that the male characters are perhaps less well-drawn than the female characters. Doctor Montague seemed to serve primarily as the enabler of the story, while Luke seemed to serve primarily as someone for Theodora and Eleanor to play off. I don’t think their characterizations distract from the story, though, and I don’t think they’re poorly written. They just aren’t as developed as Eleanor, or Theodora, and they don’t need to be.

Now, moving on from characters to the reason why I read the book in the first place – the spookiness! The house frightens from the start, thanks to Jackson’s superb storytelling. The reader cannot physically see or experience the house as the characters do (derp). Jackson utilizes the character’s reactions to the house (as opposed to simply describing the house) to prompt the reader to feel the house’s terror as its inhabitants do. Not every writer can prompt their readers to feel the same as a character just by describing that character’s thoughts and actions. Yet I felt the same emotions as Eleanor did upon first entering Hill House (though thankfully not as intensely!). Admittedly, this could be because I identify strongly with Eleanor and other readers may not have the same experience, but I think Jackson really has a skill at creating atmosphere through character. For example, Jackson introduces the idea that the house looks evil in a single paragraph at the start of chapter two, then continues with Eleanor’s thoughts as she enters the house. Consider: “I’m going to cry, [Eleanor] thought, like a child sobbing and wailing, I don’t like it here…” (%), as she speaks with the housekeeper to find her room. To me, this line is one of many from Eleanor’s perspective that highlight the house’s eerie atmosphere and prompt a sense of dread.

I am like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster, she thought, and the monster feels my tiny little movements inside. (22%)

At first, I kept myself on edge waiting for something horrific to happen. I messaged my friend while reading, “Ohhhh, it’s nighttime, now there’s going to be terrible happenings!” I suppose that shows how often I read books like this… Perhaps if I read horror instead of terror I would be correct in my anticipations, but of course I was incorrect here. Terror is when you grow more and more spooked, as I did, waiting for something to happen. I should be clear that not every page of this story will terrify you. But, almost every page of this story will make you feel uneasy (if you are like me). This feeling makes the smaller events feel all the more terrifying. The following passage may not frighten you on its own, but come across it in the book after being on edge for a hundred pages and it might make you shudder. Even in my quiet apartment in very safe Japan, with the sound of cars and laughter outside my window, I could feel the chill created by an evil house.

A thin little giggle came, in a breath of air through the room, a little mad rising laugh, the smallest whisper of a laugh, and Eleanor heard it all up and down her back, a little gloating laugh moving past them around the house, and then she heard the doctor and Luke calling from the stairs, and, mercifully, it was over. (57%)

 

Most Gothic novels are written in an ornate style, but Jackson chooses a simplistic style with a conversational word choice. What does it add to this harrowing tale? Do you find that it detracts in some places? 

Jackson’s style is a significant factor in why I’ve enjoyed her novels so much, and the third reason why I love this story. To me, her style is very sharp and modern. This style brings the terror closer to home. The only other author in this genre I’ve read is Susan Hill. While I enjoy her books and feel spooked by them, the Victorian air creates some distance between me and what’s happening in the story. Jackson’s style makes the story feel more realistic and believable, as though the story could have happened to a friend of a friend, or even me, if I just wandered through the forests and found such a house.

The Big One: what is it about Hill House that allows it to consume Eleanor’s sanity so efficiently? Or, what is it about Eleanor that allows Hill House to consumer her sanity?

Oh, what indeed! Moonlight Reader rephrased this question – is the house haunting the characters, or are the characters haunting the house? This question can be especially applied to Eleanor. Is the house haunting a woman or is the woman haunting the house? I like to think the house is haunting the characters (I like my ghost stories straightforward like that), but perhaps they open themselves to this haunting.  As you might me be able to tell from the perspective of the bulk of my review, I prefer to think it’s the house doing the haunting. I didn’t doubt that while reading the book, but now that I’m reflecting back… I’m not sure of the best answer to this question. As JoAnn commented on the discussion post, “I liked the book, but felt like I never knew what was really happening”. I think I’ll need a few rereads before I settle on an answer that satisfies me. But for now, I think Eleanor wanted something, and somewhere deep inside she thought the house could give her that and so she made herself vulnerable to its evils. I don’t have any concrete proof for this claim (thankfully, despite the length, I’m not actually writing an academic paper here…) but that’s the feeling I got. 

One last thought… I’ve only just realized as approach the end of this review. This is the first book to come anywhere near to one of my all-time favourites, White is For Witching, which I first read in 2009. White is for Witching isn’t a frightening book, but it does feature a haunted house, a similar protagonist named Miranda, and prose that evokes the same mood.

I can hear everything, all over the house, she wanted to tell them (85%)

The Bottom Line: I am full of nothing but uncritical praise for this book. That’s how I know it’s a new favourite. I look forward to a reread next autumn! Do read if you like crisp prose, well-drawn characters and a haunted house driven terror. If you’ve never read a spooky story before, start with this, one of the best.

Further Reading: