The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

the haunting of hill houseThings that go bump in the night…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Hill House has a reputation for ghostly goings-on – so much so that even the servants won’t stay around after dark. So it’s the ideal place for Dr John Montague to carry out an investigation into supernatural manifestations. He collects together a little group of strangers – selected because they have had previous experiences of strange happenings, and they all set off to spend the summer living in the house. The third-person narrative is told entirely from the viewpoint of Eleanor, who has recently lost the mother she has spent years caring for, and it’s not long before the reader becomes aware that Eleanor is a rather disturbed and fragile young woman. And, as a narrator, intensely unreliable.

“No,” Theodora said, and they heard the crash against the door across the hall. It was louder, it was deafening, it struck against the door next to them (did it move back and forth across the hall? did it go on feet along the carpet? did it lift a hand to the door?), and Eleanor threw herself away from the bed and ran to hold her hands against the door. “Go away,” she shouted wildly. “Go away, go away!”

hill house

The question is – is the house haunting Eleanor, or is Eleanor haunting the house? How much of what we are told can we believe? Shirley Jackson is great at suddenly shifting perspective and turning everything on its head, and in this one she uses Eleanor’s seeming descent into madness to confuse and misdirect. The book begins as almost a traditional gothic horror, only with a typical Jackson twist in that it is all taking place in summer with the sun shining, which I found reminiscent of how she subverted the gothic tradition in her later (and better, in my opinion) book, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. We have doors that close by themselves, strange noises in the night, blood-spattered rooms, half-seen creatures glanced sideways. We also have a twist on the old gothic servitor in the shape of the servants, the Dudleys, who provide a much-needed touch of humour with their lugubrious and sinister warnings. The house, we are told, was deliberately designed as a kind of trick with odd angles and slightly sloping floors, and with the rooms laid out almost as a labyrinth, leading in and out of each other, so that nothing is quite as would be expected. And this is how the story develops too – nothing feels quite linear about it; each time we think we know the characters, they suddenly shift slightly and we are thrown off kilter, perpetually unsettled.

“God God,” Eleanor said, flinging herself out of bed and across the room to stand shuddering in a corner, “God God – whose hand was I holding?”

hill house 2

It’s in the middle section of the book that we realise that Eleanor’s viewpoint can’t be relied on, but she’s all we’ve got to go on. Eleanor has never felt that she was wanted anywhere and sees the summer at Hill House as a way to become different – to fit in. At first it seems she’s succeeding – she and the other young woman, Theodora, strike up an immediate intimacy and Eleanor even harbours hopes that Luke, the sole young man, is falling for her. Dr Montague becomes like a father figure to them all. But soon paranoia sets in – or is it real? – as Eleanor feels she’s being excluded from the group, treated differently – and frighteningly, the increasingly threatening disturbances in the house seem to be centred on her too. But as her relationships with the group spiral downwards, Eleanor has a growing feeling that, in some way, she belongs to the house.

It is so cold, Eleanor thought childishly; I will never be able to sleep again with all this noise coming from inside my head; how can these others hear the noise when it is coming from inside my head? I am disappearing inch by inch into this house, I am going apart a little bit at a time because all this noise is breaking me; why are the others frightened?

eleanor

Jackson is brilliant at creating atmosphere and there are parts of the book that are creepy in the extreme. She uses the power of suggestion to leave much of the work up to the reader – a bit like Room 101, Hill House is a place where each person will find his or her own greatest fears. She describes the terror but often leaves the cause to the imagination. There was a point midway where I could genuinely feel the hairs rising on the back of my neck. For me, the end section fell away rather – as it became more confused as to what was real and what was Eleanor’s imagination, somehow the scare factor diminished. But it still remained an excellent and disturbing examination of madness – from the inside – and perfect reading material for the spooky season.

“So there won’t be anyone around if you need help,” Mrs Dudley said. “We couldn’t hear you, even in the night. No one could.”

“All right now?” Theodora asked, and Eleanor nodded.

“No one lives any nearer than the town, No one else will come any nearer than that…In the night,” Mrs Dudley said. She smiled. “In the dark,” she said, and closed the door behind her.

Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson

Happy Hallowe’en!

* * * * * * * * *

Thanks to Cathy at 746 Books for the brilliant review that prompted me to read this. And you’ll find another great one over at the blog of my old mucker, Lady Fancifull.

Images are stills from the 1963 film of the book, The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

67 thoughts on “The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

  1. Every year in late October I tell myself off for not having read any Shirley Jackson yet, and every year I see reviews like this one that prompt me to go and buy “We have always Lived in the Castle”, but I never do. Do you think that is the best place to start?

    • I’ve only read the two and they’re both great, but I enjoyed “We Have Always Lived…” more. it’s not as scary, but I think it’s a better story. So either would be a good one to read – depends how brave you are! 😉

  2. Thankyou MY old mucker (I guess this means we will both need a lot of soap in the Christmas stockings so that we are no longer mucky muckers but shiny faced and squeaky clean.

    I was meaning to post another Jackson today, but, alas, I ended up being dragged away by another, house brick sized book so there will be NO POSTS today and who knows when the Jackson will happen. It’ll probably coincide with National Marshmallow day or something equally inappropriate

    • Oh, being mucky’s more fun! (Why did that suddenly make me think of Sid James?)

      I finished writing this one at 2 a.m. last night. It becomes ridiculous sometimes! I’m sure I’ve left out at least half of what I was going to say, but at least that keeps it down to a bearable length – maybe I should write all my reviews when I’m half asleep… 😉

  3. Oh, FictionFan, Shirley Jackson was so good at creating that kind of eerie chill, wasn’t she? And this is a great example. Interestingly enough, one of her stories will feature on my blog today, too, in just a bit.

    • Absolutely! She understood that what’s not said is often much more scary than what is. Ooh, I’ll look forward to that – she seems to be having a bit of a revival at the moment.

  4. Great review. I remember how creepy this was when I first read it. I’m rereading Zelazney’s “A Night in the Lonesome October” as I do every Hallowe’en – not spooky, but a brilliant Lovecraftian pastiche, with everyone from Victorian fiction, from Holmes to Dracula, in it.
    ( My spell-checker has had a nervous breakdown -“Hallowe’en”, “Lovecraftian” and Zelazney” all in the one post – I WISH I knew how to turn it off).

    • Ah yes, I’m sure I put that on my horror list last year (yet another list!). Must get around to reading it…

      (Sorry, had a look but can’t see how to do it myself. I’d suggest you changed from IE to Firefox but I suspect that sounds like double-dutch to you.)

      Happy Hallowe’en!

  5. I remember We Have Always Lived in a Castle! I remember being interested in that one, for sure. So, FEF, this house doesn’t look anything like my castle, does it?

    This professor was actually in a haunted hotel today, you should know. And it was very interesting.

  6. Always meant to read this! In the spirit of the season, I’ve just started Bellman And Black by Diane Setterfield, her much awaited follow-up to The Thirteenth Tale…rather good thus far! Happy Hallowe’en!

    • Happy Hallowe’en! I didn’t read the Thirteenth Tale but I did read Bellman & Black. Won’t say anything about it for fear of spoilers but there are definitely some creepy bits in it. Hope you enjoy!

      • It’s great, only put it down a third of the way through because my Kindle died – it’s a real pain 😦 But will be getting back into it tonight, if my Kindle survives. I actually have a charger in the living room and one in the bedroom. I’m surprised how much I’ve been enjoying it, as not much has happened – but I couldn’t put it down! I didn’t read the Thirteenth Tale either, but I did see the excellent adaptation on BBC last Christmas!

        • You need to get one of these little external battery chargers thingies! I look forward to hearing what you thought of B&B once you finish it – I’m still saying nothing meantime since I don’t want to accidentally sway your opinion… 🙂

    • Thanks, Anna! I haven’t read much real Gothic literature, but now that I’m getting into horror I really need to try to fit some in. The old writers were so much better at creating a spooky atmosphere…

    • Definitely spooked me in the middle, which is quite unusual. But it’s a great book even without the spooky bits. Her other one ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ is better though, I think, and not quite so scary…

  7. I could not have done a better review of Hill House myself. Jackson definitely has a subtle gift for that chill touch on the back of your neck when you are least prepared for it.

  8. I have a copy of this book, but I’m waiting for the right time to read it: sunny, middle of the day, someplace without weird/unexpected noises… 🙂
    I’m such a wuss with creepy stuff! It does sound good though..,

    • Haha! Yes, sometimes that’s better. I must admit there was one late night where I wished I hadn’t been reading this one so near bedtime – had to read something else for a while before lights out! But it really is good – just get in extra chocolate supplies for comfort…

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