I was typing “this book isn’t all that scary,” when my front door rattled and startled me off my chair. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is THE haunted house story and has been on my queue for at least a decade. I don’t rush to read books that I expect to be predictable and was skeptical that Hill House would hold any surprises. So often, reading a classic after reading derivative works leaves the classic feeling rote even though it’s the clever original. Hill House doesn’t have this problem. I picked it up with the expectation of pesky, obvious ghosts with a few jump scares, but found a subtle and psychologically disturbing story instead.
The Haunting of Hill House follows Eleanor Vance’s participation in a scientific study at the invitation of Dr. Montague, who is trying to find proof of the supernatural. In addition to Eleanor, Theodora (a “validated” psychic) and Luke (an heir to the estate) answer Dr. Montague’s summons. Despite Hill House’s uncomfortable atmosphere, the four of them strike a friendly chemistry. Eleanor is happy to be doing something daring and independent, but she grows uneasy in the house. The story is narrated closely through her perspective and the reader is put on edge by inconsistencies in her narrative; from her introduction, Eleanor’s wild imagination separates her from what is real. An unreliable narrator in a haunted house means everything is suspect and ambiguous which contributes to ratcheting tension. Similar to We Have Always Lived in the Castle (which is slightly better), Jackson uses looping, repetitive language and a small cast to create a claustrophobic, shrinking environment.
We meet Eleanor as she makes her big break from her sister by stealing her car (which is half Eleanor’s). Though she’s likable in her moment of happy freedom, she reveals herself to be unsteady. She lives too much in her own head, weaving complicated fantasies the moment she sees an interesting sight or overhears a stranger’s conversation. She attempts to do this with Hill House, but she quickly realizes her romantic mental image is flat wrong:
Over the trees, occasionally, between them and the hills, she caught glimpses of what must be the roofs, perhaps a tower, of Hill House. They made houses so oddly back when Hill House was built, she thought; they put towers and turrets and buttresses and wooden lace on them, even sometimes Gothic spires and gargoyles; nothing was ever left undecorated. Perhaps Hill House has a tower, or a secret chamber, or even a passageway going off into the hills and probably used by smugglers—although what could smugglers find to smuggle around these lonely hills? Perhaps I will encounter a devilishly handsome smuggler and…
She turned her car onto the last stretch of straight drive leading her directly, face to face, to Hill House and, moving without thought, pressed her foot on the brake to stall the car and sat, staring.
The house was vile. She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once. (32-33)
Language of disease and instability is frequently applied to Hill House which ascribes it a certain agency and personality. Whenever possible, Jackson finds human elements in the house:
No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice. (34)
Oh, and it moves too (of course). The stairs
“—are actually on a very slight slant toward the central shaft; the doorways are all a very little bit off center—that may be, by the way, the reason the doors swing shut unless they are held […] Of course the result of all these tiny aberrations of measurement adds up to a fairly large distortion in the house as a whole.” (105)
Though Eleanor’s inconsistent thoughts provide a taut backdrop, Hill House is the most interesting character and I wanted more of it. Eleanor’s changing perceptions are an integral part of what the house is, but who can resist wanting an unfiltered, unbiased look to figure it out? The ambiguity throughout the novel, and at its close, is why Hill House is rightfully praised as a classic, but this bad lit student loves clarity and literal descriptions. (I can admit this now that I’ve long since graduated.)
Translation: Not quite as tight as We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but well worth reading. Creepy too. Excellent bedtime reading.