Reviewing: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

“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.”

Okay, hands in the air, I did bump this up my TBR pile because the Netflix show looked really good.
Now that’s out of the way, it’s time to discuss how I now want to read everything Shirley Jackson has ever written. The Haunting of Hill House is an American novel (it has occurred to me that all of my horror reads this year have been American, you guys really seem to have the monopoly on horror in my TBR list, congrats!) detailing the experiences of a small group of people – led by Doctor Montague – who volunteer to stay in the reportedly haunted Hill House for the summer and report their experiences. Inviting those he has painstakingly chosen because of their experiences with the supernatural – Eleanor’s house was repeatedly victim to mysteriously falling stones for a period in her youth and Theodora has in the past had some luck with ‘psychic ability’ in guessing the correct card in another room – as well as Luke, a member of the family who own the house, Doctor Montague hopes to prove his theories about the supernatural through their reports.

“Certainly there are spots which inevitably attach to themselves an atmosphere of holiness and goodness; it might not then be too fanciful to say that some houses are born bad. Hill House, whatever the cause, has been unfit for human habitation for upwards of twenty years. What it was like before then, whether its personality was molded by the people who lived here, or the things they did, or whether it was evil from its start are all questions I cannot answer.”

             Hill House is, from the offset, bad. Eleanor sees the house and her initial reaction is how much she would like to leave, how much the sight of it alarms her. From its creation, Hill house has seen a steady stream of deaths and betrayals, those who rent it leave suddenly and refuse to return, and it now stands empty save for the housekeepers who refuse to remain after dark. We see Hill House and the events of the following week – and yes, it is only a week, though time seems to stretch almost unimaginably within the walls of the house and it seems so much longer – through Eleanor’s eyes. I love an unreliable narrator, I always have, and Eleanor is a treat. Fanciful even from the start, she sees houses, statues, cups, and weaves in her mind a life where all three are her own. She lies to Theodora when asked about her life – to Theodora she is not a spinster who lives with her sister and her family, she is a woman with her own apartment with two stone lions on the fireplace and a cup full of stars – and it is often left to the reader whether or not Eleanor is truly witnessing the paranormal or simply losing her tenuous grasp on reality.

“Hill House has an impressive list of tragedies connected with it, but then, most old houses have. People have to live and die somewhere, after all, and a house can hardly stand for eighty years without seeing some of its inhabitants die within its walls.”

              The Haunting of Hill House is not entirely what I expected. It has many of the hallmarks of a ‘haunted house’ novel, the banging on the walls, the strange creature pacing in the darkness, the blood that appears from nowhere, the writing on the walls, the visions of a ghostly picnic on the lawn…but somehow these events of haunting are not the main focus of the book. We see a group of strangers thrust together in a highly unusual situation, desperately trying to form connections with each other and then watching those connections warp and disintegrate. At the end of the day, they do not know each other, so why should they trust each other?. We, the readers, know more than they do – that Luke is a liar and a thief, that Theodora is selfish and resentful of Eleanor’s central role in the hauntings they witness, that Doctor Montague hopes to be a ‘respectable’ scientist despite his unusual choice of field. Is everything that happens at Hill House truly the outcome of haunting, or does one of these perfect strangers perhaps try to make things exciting by writing on the walls?

This book is beautifully written, and the descriptions of Hill House – everything at a slight angle, nothing quite the way it seems or should be – are brilliantly unsettling. By seeing the world through Eleanor’s eyes we experience much of the supernatural events, the house itself seemingly calling for her in every way it can – but we miss the experiences of the others. We are told that Doctor Montague and Luke chase what appears to be a dog through the halls, but we do not see it, we are told that Theodora looks back at the ghostly apparitions she and Eleanor encounter in the gardens, but we do not know what she sees. Their little group breaks down and fractures and as Hill House worms its way into Eleanor’s mind and festers, we are dragged there right alongside her.

This is a wonderfully haunting little book, and one that lends itself to rereading extremely well. I’d highly recommend it to people who love a good old haunted house, or who are looking to dip their toes into the horror genre without the spinning heads of The Exorcist or the gore-laden halls of the Overlook in The Shining. The Haunting of Hill House is haunting and unnerving and I loved it. I can see why this book has become a staple for horror readers and I’ll definitely be reading more of Jackson’s works in future!

Overall rating: 👻👻👻👻👻 5 ghosts out of 5

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