Sunday, 21 November 2010

[005] The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House/The Haunting by Shirley Jackson

What the Back of the Book Has to Say:

Four seekers have come to the ugly, abandoned old mansion: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of the psychic phenomenon called haunting; Theodora, his lovely and light-hearted assistant; Eleanor, a lonely, homeless girl well acquainted with poltergeists, and Luke, the adventurous future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable noises and self-closing doors, but Hill House is gathering its powers and will soon choose one of them to make its own...

Why I Picked it Up: 

A love of ghost stories and positive memories of liking the 1999 movie.

What I Think:

I have a deep and abiding love of horror stories, instilled in me by my father at a very early age. I remember watching Predator around the same age I was watching those good old Disney musicals and Gremlins has been in my top five movies since I was six. And when it comes to horror, I've always preferred ghost stories. I think the best part of horror stories aren't the overtly gory things but the little things that put a chill down your spine: a footstep when you're alone in the house, things in a different place from where you left them, a voice you don't recognize calling your name. 

The novel The Haunting of Hill House is much different from the recent movie that was based off of it. I hear that the 1963 movie version is closer to the novel but I have not had the pleasure of watching it yet so I cannot compare. The 1999 movie, starring Liam Neeson, Owen Wilson, Lili Taylor and Catherine Zeta-Jones, is a classic ghost film, all about a vengeful spirit slowly trying to kill off a group of researchers in a big, scary haunted house. There's living furniture, voices in the night and murderous spirits. There's even a colossal climax at the end where the house chooses to try and take one of the main characters to itself. It's a good ghost story and delightfully creepy.

The novel is divergent from this movie but no less enjoyable, if for different reasons. The characters are still all there and the basis of the plot is the same: a professor wants to study the idea of 'hauntings' and invites a group of people to the house to be test subjects. That is about as far as they are similar, however. The book is not so much a ghost story as a true gothic novel, all dark corners and suspicion and shadows. There is the feeling of claustrophobia, the entire world consisting of the four researchers in a big, drafty house that seems to change its architecture at whim. There's a delectable backstory of past cruelty and unhappiness infecting the house. There's a group of strangers thrown together who bond quickly and deeply, calling each other 'dear,' playfully creating fake identities for each other and acting as if they were closer than family mere hours after meeting, a strange tone that only seems to work in the very best gothic novels ala Murdoch's The Unicorn

Most of the story is told through the eyes of Eleanor, a girl who came to the house because she had nowhere else to go. She lives with a sister and brother-in-law who view her only as a burden and escapes into the new life that is offered her at Hill House. Here she is a valued member of the team; here she is sharp and witty and important. She delights in looking clever in front of Luke and forms a vaguely homoerotic relationship with Theodora (but what gothic novel doesn't have some vaguely homoerotic relationships?) As time goes on, however, she begins to feel more and more left out, as if she weren't as important as she seemed at first, as if perhaps the others don't care for her, as if perhaps the house is getting to her, getting inside of her.

The real delight of this novel is that it is a ghost story without a ghost. Sure, many spooky things happen to the characters as the story goes on: doors bang open and closed, there seem to be strange whispers in the hallways, there's always a feeling of being watched, being chased. However, nothing explicit ever happens. Everything is so deliciously vague. Since everything takes place through Eleanor's eyes, it's just as easy to interpret the strange actions not as fact but as a very gradual descent into madness. Even the language of the novel supports this theory, getting more and more stream of consciousness and fluid and yet disjointed and confused as the journey through the house's secrets continues. 

It all culminates in a grand climax, just as exciting as the movie but much more dependent on the reader to determine exactly what has happened. Depending on whether you believe the house is evil or Eleanor is just crazy, the ending is either sinister or tragic. Either way, however, you're equally pleased with the conclusion. There's just something perfect in the denouement or, I suppose, the lack thereof. 

All in all, I loved this book and highly recommend it. I suppose it's a little late to read it for Halloween but if you want a little bit of a spooky Thanksgiving, pick it up. It's a quick read and well worth it.


  1. "(but what gothic novel doesn't have some vaguely homoerotic relationships?)"
    SO TRUE. That line cracked me up.

  2. Hey, at least it wasn't incest.