The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson ~ 1959. Alternative title: The Haunting. This edition: Penguin, 1999. Softcover. ISBN: 0-14-028743-4. 246 pages.
My rating: 8/10.
Oh, brrr! I do not like ghost stories as a general rule, or anything in the horror-supernatural genre. However, I do very much like American novelist and short story writer Shirley Jackson, whose works varied from the gently ironic domestic comedy of Life Among the Savages to this read-with-the-lights-on horror story, which I finally braved up enough to read after picking it up and setting it down numerous times over the years.
The Haunting is the story of an “evil” house, a “not sane” house, which exerts a malign influence over those unfortunate enough to enter through one of its many doors.
“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.”
Four disparate personalities invade Hill House’s solitude with a view to discovering its secrets. Dr. John Montague is a doctor of philosophy and anthropology with an interest in “the analysis of supernatural manifestations.” He has sought out a “haunted” house, and hopes to observe at first hand the cause and effect of the psychic disturbances within it, with the aid of several lay-people he has recruited on the basis of their previous supernatural experiences.
Dr. Montague plans to spend several months in residence at Hill House with artistic and mysterious Theodora, and lonely and troubled Eleanor Vance, both of whom who have shown psychically sensitive traits. Theodora appears to have a form of extra-sensory perception, while Eleanor was at the center of a poltergeist occurrence in her childhood.
Joining the party are Luke Sanderson, nephew of the owner of Hill House, and its prospective inheritor. Also present, during the daylight hours only, are an uncouth and sinister married couple, the Dudleys, local caretakers of the estate. The visit of the doctor’s amateur-spiritualist wife and her blustering male companion adds an element of comic relief which brings the horrific elements of the tale into even sharper focus.
What happens to this group of people in the “not sane” environs of Hill House I will leave you to discover for yourself. I must say that it is one of the creepiest stories I have had the dubious pleasure of enjoying, and enjoy it I certainly did, to my reluctant surprise.
The Haunting is a beautifully presented and rather unusual piece of writing. The story is told mainly from the point of view of Eleanor, who has grasped the opportunity to participate in Dr. Montague’s project as a way to escape her desperately unhappy everyday life. Eleanor and Hill House respond to each other in an unexpected and ultimately tragic way; the story’s ending is artistically satisfying and emotionally haunting.
There’s a lot going on in this story, and you’ll find yourself working through it in your mind long after the last page is turned.
I would highly recommend this to older teens and adults. Best read in the daylight hours, and preferably not when all alone in a country house far from neighbours!