Book #21: The Haunting of Hill House

Title: The Haunting of Hill House
Author: Shirley Jackson
Publication Date: 2006 (First published 1959)
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Page Count: 182
Genre: Horror
Why: A review of another Jackson book (Hangsaman)  by Grab the Lapels left me very curious.
1) “Fear is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns. We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway.”
2) “Everything is worse if you think something is looking at you.”
New words: oleander, cornice, atavistic, dimity, fatuous, boudoir, kipper, planchette
Friend(s) who would enjoy this book:  Alisha, Kate @ Read and Dream, Skye, Claire, Melis, Jordan, Tyra
Song(s) in the soundtrack of this book:
1) Dearly Departed, Shakey Graves (Going to see them this week!!!)
2) Somebody’s Watching Me, Rockwell
3) Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon and Garfunkel
4) Read My Mind, The Killers (for Nell)

My Review

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…

What a perfect opening sentence for an absolutely dazzling and chilling read. The reader already recognizes Hill House as a “live organism”, one that constantly mocks its inhabitants and has a genuinely evil nature.

When three strangers are summoned to the “deranged, disturbed,  and leprous” Hill House by the fatherly, studious Dr. Montague to study the haunted nature of the house, it is easy to imagine strange happenings. However, when the not-so-normal inhabitants enter this “masterpiece of architectural misdirection”, they find out that the past and poltergeists have little to do with the off balance feeling they get inside the house- instead “the evil is the house itself.” The question is no longer whether or not Dr. Montague will be able to prove the existence of the supernatural to the scientific community, but instead whether or not its inhabitants will be able to escape in time.

I thought it would be impossible to create characters on par with the general monstrosity of the house itself, but Jackson manages it effortlessly. Our not-so-lovely protagonist Eleanor Vance (or Nell), who has been chained to her ill mother for the past decade, decides to celebrate her freedom with a trip to Hill House (if that gives you any idea of what her character might be like). Eleanor is very “present in her own mind”, her thoughts and continuous calculations are really quite disturbing. As her instant friend Theodora puts it, “[Nell] is about as crazy as anyone ever saw.” In contrast to the other characters, Hill House seems to “agree with her”, and Eleanor has fleeting moments of such intense happiness in the house, which creates real moments of intense unrest in the reader. Eleanor has a very troubled background; as she puts it so blatantly “I’ve never been wanted anywhere.” At some points in the book it is incredibly hard to distinguish between what is going on in Eleanor’s head versus what is really happening. Theodora, Eleanor’s female companion is the exact opposite in every way. She is flamboyant, outgoing, and lives the life Eleanor could only dream of. Luke, invited due to his family connection to the house is “altogether selfish” while playing the role of typical male hero. All three of the characters are incredibly unique and make very interesting sketches. They provide the disturbing dialogue in an exciting setting, which makes the book completely captivating.

Jackson’s development absolutely shines in this book. The relations between the characters and the other characters, the characters and themselves, and the characters and the house are so dynamic, and are juxtaposed masterfully. The inhabitants grow and change so much throughout the course of the book, and true natures are revealed through actions and thoughts incredibly purposefully. I absolutely did not expect so much characterization in a horror book (of course that was a misjudgment on my part). However Jackson’s horror is as physical as it is psychological- and there are plenty of instances of psychological analysis, on Eleanor especially.

The prose itself is extremely well written. Jackson’s descriptions are breathtaking- I read some paragraphs at least 10 times. It really reminds me of the gothic Wuthering Heights. Phrases Jackson uses throughout the book are placed very carefully and are extremely meaningful, whether they are providing ominous hints or interesting insights. I was so impressed by the writing and I absolutely cannot wait to read Jackson’s other books. Here is one of the most stunning descriptions (of course relating to the house):

No human eye can isolate the unahppy 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. Almost any house, caught unexpectedly or at an odd angle can turn a deeply humorous look on a watching person; even a mischievous little chimney, or a dormer like a dimple, can catch up a beholder with a sense of fellowship; but a house arrogant and hating, never off guard, can only be evil.

The way that Jackson creates terror in the hearts of her readers is really ingenious. She provides some “everyday horror” in all chapters. From having the housekeeper repeating that there won’t be anyone to hear the guests scream in the middle of the night with a gleeful smile on her face to constant jokes about being dead, killing others unmercifully, or dying- Jackson does a wonderful job of reminding us that if you “sing before breakfast you’ll cry before night”. All of our characters have psychotic episodes at some point or another (during normal conversations), Theodora’s being particularly memorable…

When answering the question of who closed the doors:

“Mrs. Dudley did it yesterday, as soon as Eleanor and I were out of the way, because she’d rather shut them herself than come along and find them shut by themselves because the doors belong shut and the windows belong shut and the dishes belong-” She began to laugh foolishly…

And of course, we have the typical doors slamming, cold drifts, and weird noises. And then there are the warnings. I think these are less nerve wracking to the characters than they are to the reader.

“Suppose we wan’t to break out?” Eleanor asked.
The doctor glanced quickly at Eleanor and then away.

“Promise me absolutely that you will leave, as fast as you can, if you begin to feel the house catching at you.” (Guess whether this promise was kept or not)

This leads me to the humor, which at times was not very funny, but still made me smile. With characters like Theodora, conversation flows much like it would at a dinner party.

“When I was a child,” Theodora said lazily, “-‘many years ago’, Doctor, as you put it so tactfully…

Aren’t her characters such characters? I’ll leave the not-so-funny humor for you to find, but know it is there in excess, and contributes less to lightening the story than to the ominous, chilling aspect of the story.

I found this book extremely powerful, it explores incredibly important themes in relation to fear, which are absolutely enhanced by the looming Hill House. Jackson incorporates fear of loneliness, uncertainty, and inner conflict (all things we can relate to) into an atypical horror story, which ups the scary factor tenfold. The plot line is unique, and the characters, no matter how crazy you think they already are, continue to disturb you in ways that are unimaginable (*cough* Eleanor). Thank you to GTL for recommending this to me- what a wonderful introduction into a new genre!



18 thoughts on “Book #21: The Haunting of Hill House

Add yours

  1. How amazing is Shirley Jackson?! I read The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle at the start of last year. They’re both so deeply unsettling. I love her short story, ‘The Lottery’ too.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Ooh, so I’m scared to read this. I am absolutely TERRIBLE with anything scary, as in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was frightening. So was And then there were None. I haven’t read a proper horror novel before….but now that you’ve recommended it I almost feel obligated! So…is it safe?


      1. I haven’t! But I’ve added it to my list 🙂 And you definitely should be- this book is horrifying in all different ways! I have a feeling you’ll really enjoy it though, and it will break the scale. Always look forward to your comments 🙂


  3. Wasn’t that a great read? Glad you liked it so much! I think I read it a few seasons ago for Halloween and enjoyed it immensely even though We Have Always Lived in the Castle will remain my favorite of hers.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. First, thank you for reading and commenting so kindly on my review of The Haunting of Hill House, and second, what a great review you wrote yourself!

    Hill House is the kind of book that provides endless fodder for thought and review. I can literally see Jackson’s influence on writers like Stephen King and Gillian Flynn. Jackson was so good at creating characters that weren’t inherently evil, per se, but were so unlikable that they literally left me with a furrowed brow the entire time I was reading.

    I love reading reviews from kindred literary spirits!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 🙂 Thank you! I was looking for more analysis and luckily came across your review. It does, doesn’t it? I’ve read a couple of the YA psych thrillers this year, and although I see elements of her writing, nobody writes like her. And yes- her characters are so interesting and the development was wonderful. Their true traits really showed by the end of the book. It’s quite incredible that the house made such a wonderful antagonist. Though, I feel like “Hill House” and “wonderful” should definitely not be in the same sentence 🙂 Looking forward to your other reviews!!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. There are a lot of little things that people who have done research and analysis on this book have pointed out: the starts on Nell’s dish keep reappearing, the subtle undercurrent of lesbian affection between Nell and Theo, the madness induced from caring for her mother for so long being a sort of haunting (as if the house replaced the dead mother)…so, so much to write about in your research paper. Jackson never gives you a clear ending, either. You’re left thinking about her books for days and days because they just don’t shut a door like you want them to, which I think is fantastic.

    Also, please don’t watch the 1999 film.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I am so excited! I think I want to focus more on how Jackson deviates from typical genre fiction, as I think Hill House is much more character/prose driven and barely relies on a normal horror plot. I watched the trailer for the 1999 film and I was like, really? Luke, Montague (they changed his name?), and Eleanor looked way different from what I imagined. It looked more silly than chilling.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I thought I liked this post before, but apparently not. My apologies! I watched The Haunting today. It was fantastic! It’s by one of the best and most influential directors of all time, and it shows. Interesting camera shots, use of simple tricks to make the whole house feel off kilter (watch the mirrors and paintings). Do NOT watch the remake from the 90s. There are gross abuses of plot for sake of “horror.” The Haunting sticks closely to the plot of Jackson’s book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am so looking forward to watching it! And especially seeing how the house is “off kilter”- that was definitely one of the most interesting ideas of the book. Noted, I will definitely not be watching the 90s remake.

      Liked by 1 person

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