This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
Shirley Jackson’s classic haunted house tale The Haunting of Hill House is one of the best executed examples of the genre anywhere in literature. The book’s pervading sense of dread and malice is palpable, and the story eschews cheap scares for an examination of the impact of terror on the psyches of its characters. It is a delicious read for cool autumn nights when bare branches bang against the gutters.
The story is simple. Four people–two men and two women–travel to a remote house in the wooded hills near a small town. The house is purported to be haunted, which they know before arriving. It’s why they’re there, in fact. One of them, Dr. John Montague, is seeking to scientifically document supernatural phenomena, and has summoned the other three to the secluded house, which he has leased for the summer for its reputation as a haunted location. The other man is Luke, the spoiled rascal who is due to inherit Hill House at some point. The two women have been invited for their lifelong propensity for attracting strange occurrences. Theodora is a woman of the world, stylish, tastefully flirtatious, and, it is hinted, possibly lesbian or bisexual. Eleanor, the book’s point-of-view character, is Theodora’s opposite. She has spent the last decade of her life caring for her now deceased mother while her sister got married and had a child. Eleanor is given to anxiety, self-doubt, social awkwardness. She is the first to arrive at Hill House and the last to leave.
The house itself is, as should always be the case in such a story, as much a character in the story as any of the human players. The house is eighty years old and has been the site of much heartache, we come to find out, which seems to always be the way of haunted houses. It has developed the unfortunate habit of evicting its occupants rather rapidly; at least, no one manages to stay for very long. The little group quickly finds out why. What starts as sudden chills and slammed doors escalates to terrifying nighttime manifestations of…they’re not sure what, and nor are we, as Jackson is far too cagey to spell anything out. Over the space of a week the group begins to unravel, their circumstantial bonds shaken apart by the hammer blows of Hill House’s nighttime jarrings. All of this impacts Eleanor more than the others, and indeed the house seems to recognize her outsider status and preys upon her.
Jackson is brilliant not only in evoking the surreal atmospheric terror of Hill House, but also the subtle shifts in power and connection between the four main characters. Some of us will recognize all too well Eleanor’s optimism that she can fit in and belong with this group, and her emotional unraveling when communion once again slips away from her. Jackson is a master of telling us things about a character without saying them at all; a line of dialogue is all we need to understand and recognize what is never spelled out.
The book is an archetypal haunted house novel, the prototype for countless other (almost always lesser) examples. Interestingly, its influence can also be seen in horror films. A small, mixed group travels to a dwelling in the woods. Unfriendly and poorly educated locals greet their arrival with creepy, apocryphal warnings. Sexual tension heightens bonds and suspicions. Even the make-up of the group seems to predict modern slashers–there is an expert, a jock, a flirt, a virgin. There’s a reason the formula works so well.
The book is a delightful haunted read. We sympathize deeply with Eleanor, we revel in the cozy camaraderie of the group’s first evenings around the fire, we feel their terror as the house begins to turn its malevolence against them, we cringe with Eleanor as she is isolated from the group, and ultimately we nod as the book concludes. Yes, that is how that should have happened, we think. Shirley Jackson is a master in dealing not only with the fun of a haunted tale, but with the myriad subtleties and fault lines of mental health issues and interpersonal grace and discord. If you’ve never picked up this classic, do it today.