The Haunting of Hill House (1959) by Shirley Jackson
What nightmares are waiting, shadowed, in those high corners – what breath of mindless fear will drift across my mouth…
Dr. John Montague, an analyst of supernatural manifestations, assembles a small team of people who in one way or another have been part of abnormal events to act as assistants in an experiment to discern the nature of the reported paranormal phenomena surrounding Hill House – a massive manor in the countryside. The Doctor rents out Hill House with the intention of living there for a time to study its supposed ‘haunted’ status. Along with him is Luke Sanderson, a well-educated fellow and heir to Hill House, Theodora, a hot-headed shop keeper who is said to have the gift of clairvoyance or telepathy to some degree, and Eleanor Vance, our socially dull and introspective protagonist who has a fondness for daydreaming. The group meet at Hill House where over the course of a few days their sanity and relationship will be put to the test as the paranormal events surrounding the house become more and more powerful.
The Haunting of Hill House is an interesting novel that is equal parts erudite and annoying. Mixed in with fragments of Jackson’s prosaic and brilliant illustrative writing style is a bland cast of characters, a bland mostly uneventful story, a bland handling of dialogue, and a bland overreliance on repetition in narration.
Uncertainty in both style and story is a key aspect of the novel. After reading the first chapter (which has one of the strongest opening paragraphs I’ve ever read) you are immediately introduced to this uncertainty in style as focus rapidly shifts from Hill House itself, Doctor Montague’s paranormal investigation into it, some background profiles on the main cast, and finally to the perspective of our unreliable protagonist Eleanor.
Eleanor is an interesting protagonist and I can’t decide whether she’s subversively brilliant or just as nonsensical as the rest of the cast, it depends on if I take the view that Hill House itself is the one and only source of grief in the novel, or if it’s a mixture of the house’s influence plus the probable latent emotional issues we learn Eleanor is dealing with.
The rest of the characters for the most part come off as unlikable or irrelevant and aren’t very distinguishable from each other, perhaps with the exception of the Doctor who is used to periodically remind us that there is an investigation going on somewhere in the background.
The uncertainty factor in narration feels like a double-edged sword. On one hand it intensifies the mystique of Hill House and adds to its wonderfully dreadful atmosphere, on the other it takes away a lot of weight the characters and story could have had as the novel has a tendency to jump from one thing to the next, without explanation and without reason creating a very disjointed reading experience.
I enjoyed the sense of ‘make your own interpretation’ the novel provides but felt that it relies way to heavily on it, especially in the later chapters. I probably would have enjoyed it more if the novel took itself a bit more seriously. After almost every scene of interest the atmosphere is ruined by the characters laughing it off and forgetting about it.
The horror aspect of the novel is very suppressed, relying more on atmosphere and the subliminal than actual events, it is after all a ghost story. There are one or two instances which were masterfully crafted but I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed subsequently every time the novel seemed to be going somewhere or building up to something only to be cut short and abandoned in favour of returning to meaningless chit chat among the cast.
Things seemed to improve with the spontaneous introduction of the Doctor’s wife, Mrs. Montague, who is a very snotty and pompous character and conversely enough a welcome addition to the one-note cast so far, almost an introspective insult to the novel as she is quite literally introduced to speed things up and criticise the paranormal investigation (the pacing of the story) conducted so far. But again any interesting events are cut excruciatingly short with idle nonsense that aims to instil uncertainty at the expense of meaningful plot or character development.
Overall The Haunting of Hill House is not a very memorable story in of itself, however it was written in a way such that the image of Hill House, its shadowy maze-like corridors and labyrinth of impossible inside rooms along with the surrounding dark wood and looming hills will be forever burned into my mind, even if its central plot and characters won’t.
I think weird sums up The Haunting of Hill House as a novel adequately. It doesn’t really work as a haunted house/ghost story and it doesn’t really work as a character study either. We end up with a mishmash of these ideas carried solely by Jackson’s literary skill, a feat in and of itself but otherwise slightly better-than-average at best.
If you’ve ever at all been interested in this novel you should definitely give it a read, I wouldn’t say it’s great for a scare factor or unbridled heroics in the face of the supernatural, it’s more of a slow burn, a patient experience that unfortunately doesn’t pay off but provides some food for thought, it is a ghost story after all.
~Giuseppe Gillespie March 2022