Review: The Haunting of Hill House

haunting_of_hill_house_coverI was typing “this book isn’t all that scary,” but then my front door rattled and I fell out of 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.)

Overall: 4.3

Translation: Not quite as tight as We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but well worth reading. Creepy too. Excellent bedtime reading.

Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

WeHaveAlwaysLivedInTheCastleShirley Jackson is best known for The Haunting of Hill House and has a reputation for scary stories. I’m not keen on stories that have a net effect of making me more afraid of the dark, but We Have Always Lived in the Castle presents a different kind of horror. Mary Katherine and Constance Blackwood live with their uncle in a grand mansion at the edge of a town filled with fearful and envious people. The reader understands, as the Blackwoods do, that their only security lies in seclusion. Between mounting tension with the town and the unexpected arrival of their grasping cousin, it is clear their security cannot last indefinitely.

[NOTE: As the suspense of the story is entirely dependent on not knowing when or how this dam will break, if you have a copy of this work that includes Jonathan Lethem’s introduction DO NOT READ IT before the book. When he discusses WHALitC, he dissects it point by point to thoroughly and completely spoil it for anyone who might be reading it for the first time.]

The story is told through the eyes of Mary Katherine, “Merricat”, who is 18, but seems more like a child. Her sister, Constance, is older and assumes a motherly role to keep her clean and well-fed. Constance also tends to their ailing Uncle Julian. The shadow over the house is due to the deaths of several members of the Blackwood family, who died of poisoning. Constance was arrested and acquitted of the crime, but the villagers still believe her a murderess and this, partly, explains their distrust of the house.

Mary Katherine is a fascinating narrator. Her voice is unsettling due to its fluctuations between innocence and cruelty. At times she repeats herself, harping on things she finds particularly relevant or galling, e.g. the Rochester house is always mentioned with the parenthetical that it should have belonged to Constance by right. This isn’t sloppy repetition on Jackson’s part so much as a methodical building of a character who fixates on the same details as she goes about her routines. I clarify this because the last review I wrote (The Night Circus), heavily criticized Morgenstern for her repetitive use of ‘perfect’ and its synonyms. The world created by Jackson in WHALitC is not some sprawling and miraculous circus: it is limited by Mary Katherine’s lonely and isolated life. Each day at the Blackwood mansion follows an established itinerary; each day is a study in isolation. When Cousin Charles arrives at the mansion and upsets the routine, Mary Katherine hardly knows what to do with herself:

“I wondered about going down to the creek, but I had no reason to suppose that the creek would even be there, since I never visited it on Tuesday mornings […]” (109)

The sparse repetitive language becomes a reflection of their sparse repetitive lives. The simplicity of the phrasing creates a mood. Jackson does this so skillfully that anything out of the ordinary stands out to the reader as much as to Mary Katherine. When Cousin Charles arrives, he upends their lives and the reader knows this will only bring calamity while also looking forward to a change in the pace of the book. This push-pull effect hooks the reader and makes the book difficult to put down. Happily, it reads quickly enough to finish in a single sitting.

Cousin Charles is also a frustrating presence because he so easily fools everyone except Mary Katherine, who cannot understand why anyone is giving him the time of day. She even regards her cat, Jonas, as an occasional traitor on this front:

“Jonas left me and went to sit in the doorway and watch them. ‘Jonas?’ Charles said, and Jonas turned toward him. ‘Cousin Mary doesn’t like me,’ Charles said to Jonas. I disliked the way he was talking to Jonas and I disliked the way Jonas appeared to be listening to him.” (96)

The slow creeping horror of the novel is the wait for the axe to fall. Mary Katherine can do little to protect her family or her house, but she does what she can with small bits of mental magic. She buries amulets and thinks up protective words (so long as no one utters them, they will be safe). Because it is spelled out in the first few pages that something disastrous will happen, the reader watches these amulets as carefully as she does, waiting for the cue that it’s all about to crumble.

“Charles had only gotten in because the magic was broken; if I could reseal the protection around Constance and shut Charles out he would have to leave the house. Every touch he made on the house must be erased. […] I polished the doorknob to our father’s room with my dust cloth, and at least one of Charles’ touches was gone.” (99)

I never thought the idea of a character wandering a house and touching things could be so eerie. But through Mary Katherine’s narration, this simple act of establishing a presence within a house becomes an act of violence. The tension mounts unbearably into the climax.

Overall: 4.5.

Translation: Read it, and it’s okay if you read it at night because it isn’t that sort of horror. However, the climax will make it hard for you to sleep at some point, no matter when you read it.