Still Creepy After All These Years: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

89717I finally, FINALLY read a book by Shirley Jackson, thanks to the read-along hosted by the Estella Society. With fall being here and Halloween fast approaching, it was the perfect read.

When I started the book, my first thought was that it would take me some time to read it because of its style. Jackson uses lots of commas in her sentences, lots of interjections, and her style took a little time to get used to. That required me to read very closely, to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. While that took a little extra time, it went very well with the story, which has been called “a perfect work of unnerving terror” and “one of the significant haunted house stories of the ages.” I couldn’t agree more. I was frankly a little surprised that a book first published in 1959 could still be so spooky.

The book tells the story of four people who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly mansion called Hill House. Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting” has invited a number of people to experience and record what staying at Hill House is like. Two women respond to his invitation and actually follow through: Theodora, an upbeat and maybe slightly unconventional person, and Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman who feels that life has passed her by while she took care of her mother. The fourth person is Luke, the heir of Hill House, there to keep an eye on the other three. While the story is told in the third person, it focuses mostly on Eleanor, letting us know what she thinks and how she feels.

“[Eleanor] turned her car onto the last stretch of straight drive leader 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.”

The four guests do their best not to be intimidated by the house, which is rather creepy: rooms that have no windows, a library that has a foul smell, a prominent tower that can only be seen from certain rooms, and slightly off-centered angles that mess with the sense of direction and balance. Then there are strange noises, doors that won’t stay open, blood, and a mysterious housekeeper whose only redeeming feature is that she’s an excellent cook. It all sent shivers down my spine, and I loved it.

What is even better is the very slow decline of Eleanor’s credibility. Right from the start, it is clear that Eleanor has an overactive imagination and that she is desperate for some excitement in her life. But it wasn’t until two thirds in the book that I started to wonder exactly how reliable she was as a spectator. Once this little seed of doubt was planted, I of course had to wonder how true everything had been that had happened up until that point. Maybe the noises, the cold, and Theodora’s odd behavior were all just a figment of Eleanor’s imagination. The doubt only grows as the interaction between Eleanor and especially Theodora becomes stranger by the page. Is Eleanor unhinged? Is there a possible rational explanation for it all? Or is the house with the tragic history truly driving its guests insane? It’s definitely worth it to find out!

I am absolutely looking forward to reading Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I don’t think I can wait until next Halloween season….

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22 comments

  1. I liked Eleanor and because of that, I got really creeped out by this book. You could tell at some point that she started acting strange and paranoid about everyone around her. I loved it, the tension just builds and builds. I definitely want to read more of her work.

  2. This was my first Shirley Jackson as well, and I loved it. I like the ambiguity as to whether there was really a ghost or Eleanor was having a mental break (or both!).

  3. It’s so true how scary this book is! I read it years ago, and don’t remember details as much as being overall creeped out. It’s interesting how you said that a book written in 1959 could still hold so much “fear”; yet any time i pick up something by Edgar Allen Poe, I wonder why I was ever scared by anything Stephen King wrote! Poe is one scary dude.

    • I agree… King has nothing on Poe! I love that The Haunting was creepy without any of the outrageousness that is so often used in newer stories. There are no bloodbaths, no psychopaths, no chainsaws, just good, old-fashioned psychological terror that is based on not exactly knowing what is going on.

  4. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is very short, so you could probably fit it in this month. I liked it even better than Hill House.

    It took me a while to figure out just how unreliable Eleanor was… definitely want to reread the book paying closer attention. Maybe next year for R.I.P.!

  5. I read this for the readalong too and enjoyed it. I loved the way we are made to wonder how much is real and how much is Eleanor’s imagination. I liked We Have Always Lived in the Castle better than this one, though!

  6. The development of the psychological tension sounds great. I haven’t read Shirley Jackson, but she’s on my list and I have a copy of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

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