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Monday, May 11, 2020

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is a classic gothic ghost story. The book, which has been the subject of several films and television series has achieved a high level of fame in modern popular culture. I thought that this book was both spooky, atmospheric and fun. It was first published in 1959.

The premise of the story centers upon the house of the title, which is located somewhere in the rural America. Dr. John Montague is a professor who attempts to conduct a research project at the house. Most of the people he tries to recruit to stay at the house, as part of the project, refuse. Only two women, Eleanor Vance and Theodora agree. Luke Sanderson, an heir to the house, sent by the property owners to keep an eye on the doings, also joins the group. Later on, Dr. Montague’s wife as well as Arthur, a family friend, join the group. 

Eleanor is the protagonist of the book. Early on we learn that she has spent the last decade in isolation and increasing misery taking care of her invalid mother. Since her mother’s death, she has been living in the shadow of her repressive sister and brother -in - law. Eleanor’s low self - esteem is a factor throughout the novel. Eleanor sees her foray to Hill House as an escape.

Theodora is young, attractive, bohemian person who is a little self – centered, fun and humorous. Both women have been chosen by Montague because they have previously displayed psychic abilities. Luke is a likable rogue who is not above petty theft to feed a gambling habit. 

Later, the group is joined by the Dr. John Montague’s silly and pretentious wife as well as the self - serious but equally pretentious friend Arthur. All the characters, who aside from Eleanor, are not very complex, but are fun to read about. 

As the days go by, all sorts of eerie things begin to happen. Something bangs on the walls at night, strange voices are heard. Some of the former, long decreased residents are seen having a picnic.

All this time, Eleanor is psychologically drawn closer and closer to the force that pervades the house. The story plays out as the old tale of a repressed person waking up and finding themselves in a better place. However, since it is the sinister Hill House is the source of Eleanor’s escape, the old story gets twisted. It is the first time the Eleanor is away from her repressive relatives. She enjoys her freedom and the adventure that she has embarked upon. She initially likes and gets along with the other guests especially Theodora. She observes,

It is my second morning in Hill House, and I am unbelievably happy. Journeys end in lovers meeting; I have spent an all but sleepless night, I have told lies and made a fool of myself, and the very air tastes like wine. I have been frightened half out of my foolish wits, but I have somehow earned this joy; I have been waiting for it for so long. Abandoning a lifelong belief that to name happiness is to dissipate it, she smiled at herself in the mirror and told herself silently, You are happy, Eleanor, you have finally been given a part of your measure of happiness. Looking away from her own face in the mirror, she thought blindly, Journeys end in lovers meeting, lovers meeting. 

The Shakespeare line from Twelfth Night, Journeys end in lovers meeting is often repeated by Eleanor. This line intertwines itself with the book’s plot and theme.

As time goes by Eleanor begins to experience hallucinations. She also begins to have paranoid feelings about the other characters making fun of her or treating her like an outcast. The portrait of Eleanor’s mental deterioration is strong as Jackson portrays her chaotic thoughts and feelings. At times Eleanor is resentful of the other characters, at other times she has warm feelings and is clingy towards them. I think that this is reflective of a person who is experiencing a degree of mental instability. She is a very interesting character to read about. 

In addition to lively characters, Jackson’s description of scary scenes is near brilliant. At one point Eleanor and most of the main characters are trapped in a room when the knocking becomes a massive pounding that seems to be bringing the entire house down.

in the churning darkness where she fell endlessly nothing was real except her own hands white around the bedpost. She could see them, very small, and see them tighten when the bed rocked and the wall leaned forward and the door turned sideways far away. Somewhere there was a great, shaking crash as some huge thing came headlong; it must be the tower, Eleanor thought, and I supposed it would stand for years; we are lost, lost; the house is destroying itself. She heard the laughter over all, coming thin and lunatic, rising in its little crazy tune, and thought, 

I love the above quotation. It seems to me that Jackson has captured the feeling that the house may really be collapsing. This all ties in with Eleanor’s melding in with the house and her mental degeneration. Shortly after the above occurs she thinks, 

No; it is over for me. It is too much, she thought, I will relinquish my possession of this self of mine, abdicate, give over willingly what I never wanted at all; whatever it wants of me it can have.

This story has been filmed several times. I think that I have seen all of the versions. I thought that the 1963 film version was excellent. I also liked the recent Netflix television series. However, that version greatly deviated from the book. There was also a 1999 film that I thought was not up to the other versions

I thought that is this novel was enjoyable. It has characters that are fun to read about. Eleanor’s development was also very well done. It is spooky, and delves into psychology in interesting ways. I have read limited amount of horror in my life. This was one of the best works in the genre that I have read.  This novel has a reputation of being a classic ghost story. I think that it warrants its reputation.

55 comments:

mudpuddle said...

she's one of a kind and she does it better than anyone else in her generation... i haven't read much of her work because i get scared after a couple of chapters of whatever story of hers i happen to be reading and quit... i wonder if Stephen King is comparable ( i haven't read him either...) interesting choice for a post!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Mudpuddle. This was my first Jackson book. Based upon this book she really was talented.

I have read a fair amount of early Steven King. He is generally not as subtle. He tends to really describe and examine the horror in detail. On the other hand, I think that there were parallels between this book and The Shining.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I need to read this in the fall - I'm quirky like that! I'm pretty sure I will love it.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, Great commentary. Part of me would like to read The Haunting of Hill House but I read about fifteen years ago: We Have Always Lived in the Castle also by Shirley Jackson and it was brilliantly written but very disturbing. Jackson reminds me of Patricia Highsmith who wrote the Talented Mr.Ripley novels. I read the first in the series and was very impressed but avoided going further.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Diane - It would make a great Halloween read.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy. I have not read We Have Always Lived in the Castle but I want to. There are novels that I found disturbing that I would not read again. I did not find that to be the case with this one. I wonder what I would think of that book.

Debra She Who Seeks said...

Shirley Jackson is certainly known as the Queen of the Plot Twist. I've never read this book but you're right, it would make a terrific Halloween read. I'm putting it on my "to read" list, thanks!

Mystica said...

I read this quite a long time ago. It was good. That cover is spooky enough to draw anyone in!

Katherine Nabity said...

One of my favorite books. The first time I read it, I was in college. I lived in the dorms and my room was directly opposite the elevator shaft/main stairway. I was right at the part you quoted when three/four girls banged up the stairs and slammed the door. I have never been so freaked out!

I second any recommendation of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

JacquiWine said...

Glad to see that you have discovered the wonderful Shirley Jackson, one my favourite American authors from this period. I think this is an excellent book, so creepy and unnerving - all the more so for the psychological; nature of the 'scares'...

Whispering Gums said...

I'm not really a horror reader so I'm not sure that I would choose this. I'm not keen on spooky/scary stuff. I am interested though in Shirley Jackson's writing.

What do you think makes this a classic - which it must be if it has been adapted to screen at lest three times when it's only 60 years old. that's impressive.

Paula Vince said...

I know this book is a sort of classic, and I don't mind a good ghost story. This sounds like a fun one with some thought-provoking themes. I'll have to look out for it down the track. Thanks for the good review.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Debra -It is interesting in that there were not many unexpected plot twists in the book. If you read this, I would love to know what you thought about it.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for stopping by Mystica. That is a great cover.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for stopping by Katherine. I can imagine reading that passage and hearing banging! It was s funny how our minds will associate what we are reading to what is going on in the real world.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui- I think that is the word unnerving is a good way to describe much of this book.

Brian Joseph said...

PS - I plan to read We Have Always Lived in the Castle sometime this year.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi WG - I have only read a limited amount of horror myself. I have mostly stuck with what are considered classics.

I think that this story is so esteemed is because it is a basic ghost story told so well. It also may have innovated many of the conversations of the genre.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Paula - it really is fun while it also digs into some interesting psychological stuff.

Dorothy Borders said...

Somehow I have managed to avoid reading this book all these years. It's not deliberate - I just never got to it. But your review reminds me of what I am missing. I'm putting it on my TBR list again.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Dorothy- There are a lot of books that have been on my radar for a long time that I have not gotten to.

If you read this, I am curious as to what you will think about it.

Sharon Wilfong said...

I think Shirley Jackson herself suffered from a sense of alienation and loneliness. Eleanor acutely portrays the sort of person who has nowhere to go and no one to turn to. Her choice in the end was the worst possible of all, made by someone without hope, but now doomed to spend eternity alone and isolated, held captive in a house.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon- Indeed, Eleanor seems to reflect Jackson’s loneliness and despair.

I agree that Eleanor’s fate was bleak. I have read a few people who try to put a little positive interpretation on the ending, seeing Eleanor’s fate as a kind of positive escape. I do not think that Jackson had that in mind if only because Eleanor seemed to regret her decision at the very end.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Okay, have finally downloaded it to read. I keep hearing about this book and Stephen King certainly writes about it in his history of horror fiction, Danse Macabre. Time to read it!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sue - It is neat that you have downloaded it. I hope that you enjoy.

The Padre said...

This One Is New On Me - Pretty Intriguing - Also, Really Appreciated Your Opinion Of Station Eleven - Excellent Blog For Sure

Cheers

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Padre. And thanks for stopping by.

Lory said...

I don't usually like horror but I love Shirley Jackson. I think her books (as you astutely point out here) are about a kind of melding of the physical and psychological worlds, and they reveal much about our so-called "normal" selves that we don't usually care to look at. There is a kind of compassion beneath the sometimes very disturbing events in her books and I think that is what makes her so interesting.

Definitely read Castle, also you might like The Sundial, a very weird end-of-the-world tale that brings out her sharp sense of humor. The memoirs about her own family, Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages, are also well worth reading. Short stories too!

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Definitely one for the Wish List, this sounds wonderfully, well Gothic. Thanks Brian, away off to add it to my list now. I hope you and yours are well and are staying safe.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lory - It does seem that Jackson has compassion for Eleanor.

Thank you for the recommendations. I will check out more of Jackson's work.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Felicity - If you read this I would love to know what you thought about it.

Things are good here. We are socially isolating. I am in downstate New York, so it will be a while here.

I hope that you and your family are doing well and are safe and healthy.

Judy Krueger said...

I am a big fan of Shirley Jackson. She gets into your head and your fears but doesn't scare me too badly to go on. I like your review and it made me realize some things I had not thought of when I read this one, which, unlike many people, is not my favorite of hers. We Have Always Lived in the Castle IS one of my favorites.

thecuecard said...

Yeah I read & reviewed this novel last year .... and liked it quite a bit. It spooked me good ha. I don't think I'll forget Eleanor Vance anytime soon. I was hoping she'd get her freedom away .... but it doesn't exactly work out that way. I hope to read another Shirley Jackson novel this year. Glad you liked this one too.

Judith said...

Oh, Brian, I loved this novel. So inexplicably other-worldly. So unique, so dark yet not interminably dark. It's an utter masterpiece.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Judy. I think a lot of people like We Have Always Lived in the Castle the best

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sue. I remember your review. It reminded me that I had wanted to read this.

I also hoped that Eleanor would get away and be happy too.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Judith. It did have atmosphere. I agree that it was dark, but did not seem completely dark until this end.

Laurie @RelevantObscurity said...

I liked this book very much and found it to be very visual, although having watched the 1963 version (the best :)) of the film many times previously, I am not sure how that affected my reading. I was surprised at how Jackson made everything feel so haunted, which I liked about the film. She is a masterful writer!

Suko said...

This sounds really wonderful! I'd like to read or listen to this, and see the 1963 movie, sometime soon. Terrific commentary as usual, Brian Joseph!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko. I thought that the 1963 film was brilliant.

baili said...

a brilliant commentary once again dear Brain

i enjoyed it thoroughly as your reviews have power to compel for reading the one you choose

i had been watching horror movies for many years ,i think it is after death of my parents that i quit them intentionally due to some negativity issues if you have read my header line you can get it bit

i found book intriguing , topic is captivating with poignant characters through your words and passages you shared
i agree that central character is able to feel connect with supernatural energies because of the lack of warmth of love and stimulation she experienced
i would like to read just to know how she finds way out through these adventures
thank you for another wonderful sharing!
stay healthy and well !

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Baili - I also like horror movies. I can see how life events would make one adverse to them.

Eleanor’s story in this book is very compelling.

Rachel said...

I loved this book when I read it as a teen. I'm wondering how well it will translate to my adult life. Will it be just as good? You seemed to like it, and that's a good sign. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Laurie- The book really did have atmosphere

I had last seen the 1963 film years ago. I rewatched it after I read the book.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Rachel. I find that I view books differently when I read them as an adult. But almost everyone who reads this as an adult seems to like it.

the bookworm said...

Glad you enjoyed this one, I need to read it one day. I like the quotes you shared. I watched the Netflix television series based on it and enjoyed it we well. Great post as always!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Naida - I liked the Netflix series a lot. It was radically different from the book however.

If you read this I would be curious as to what you thought if it.

James said...

Great review of what sounds like a good read. I haven't read any horror in several years so this might be a good book to get back into that genre.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James. I do not read a lot of horror. I consider this one as an essential or in other words, a classic.

Susan Kane said...


Shirley Jackson is one of my favorite authors for this genre. She has such a way of weaving and connecting. Read this probably 40 years (?) ago and remember it well.

Good book, great writer.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - Though I have read a limited amount of horror, I found this to be a great story that can hold up well compared to other books of various genres.

I can see how this book would stay with someone.

JaneGS said...

When I'm in the mood for a spooky story again, this is the one I'll read. Great review of a chilling story.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jane. If one is to pick one spooky story, this one is s great choice.

Carol said...

Ive never read any horror books. The closest I got was the short story by Poe, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ which I thought was just melodramatic. I like the sound of the psychological aspects of this book but I don’t think I’d ever read it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Carol - I have read a very limited about of horror myself. While I think that Poe was brilliant, he was a unique and in some ways a difficult writer. This story was much closer to a traditional ghost story.