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.