Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” is considered a classic of horror fiction. I will admit immediately that I didn’t find it particularly scary. The 1963 film adaptation, which kept fairly close to the book, may be partially responsible for that, in that I knew what was going to happen and how it would end, so someone without that exposure may find it a scarier read. That being said, it is excellently written and very entertaining.
The story centres around Eleanor Vance, one of four people who go to the titular house in order to investigate a haunting. Dr Montague is attempting to investigate whether the house is actually haunted, and has chosen a number of people to come to the house with him. Eleanor is one of only two invitees to agree, principally because she has been looking after her mother for years (who has recently died), and Eleanor is desperate to get away from her sister and be her own person at last. She doesn’t actually know why she was invited, and is surprised to learn that an incident when she was a child, that had been put down to neighbour children, was considered to be a poltergeist event surrounding her.
Eleanor is written as a naïve, almost childish personality. There are clear mental health issues, which make her something of an unreliable point of view. That being said, she’s a likeable character. There’s nothing nasty about her, and the reader can feel empathy for her and her situation, both past and present. She has an active imagination and fantasy life, so we are unsure if her experiences of the house are real or products of her own imagination. If it wasn’t for the other characters’ experiences, it would be easy to think the entire situation is inside her own head. She herself becomes confused about this:
How can these others hear the noise when it is coming from inside my head?
Given that Eleanor was at the centre of a poltergeist event when she was young, it could even be argued that the supernatural events at Hill House are coming from her, rather than the house. The poltergeist force has arrived with her rather than being present in the house already. This is not a theory that’s answered, however. The story gives no answers about what is actually happening. Eleanor fantasizes and then lies about her life, weaving the fantasies into these lies in a desperate attempt to make herself look more normal. She has, however, been the victim of an uncaring family, kept in a menial position and infantilised in a way, kept from being an adult. So, she doesn’t know how. She takes up the invitation in a desperate attempt to be free, but the construction and mood of Hill House means she is as trapped as she ever was, in a claustrophobic environment where nothing makes sense and it’s hard to get your bearings. There is no escape.
The house itself becomes a character in the story. We are told that its very architecture is off-putting – the angles are slightly off, meaning doors are always closing by themselves unless propped open, the layout of the rooms is odd, where some rooms are built inside others. Consequently it is very easy to get lost in the house, and the odd angles make the visitor feel uncomfortable even before anything odd happens. If the house is a representation of the person, we can even see the odd angles and convoluted layout as a mirror of the protagonist’s own damaged psyche.
Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
The protagonist’s first reaction on sight of Hill House is very telling, though she eventually becomes used to it and her feelings change. But initially:
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.
And a little later:
This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity. It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope.
One of the other characters describes the interior furnishings as suffocating – everything is soft and velvety, but not really comfortable. It is little wonder the protagonist Eleanor ends up feeling sucked into the very fabric of the house, as if she is drowning in a whirlpool. When she and Theo are locked in one of the bedrooms something bangs on the door and the walls, feeling its way around as if trying to get in, searching for her.
The shaking stopped, the door was quiet, and a little caressing touch began on the doorknob, feeling intimately and softly and then, because the door was locked, patting and fondling the doorframe, as though wheedling to be let in.
It writes messages on the walls to her, and sends messages via the Ouija board. The ‘not sane’ house recognizes and draws in the ‘not sane’ person. Hill House isn’t haunted in the strictest sense of the word – there’s no real single human ghost that stands out. The house itself is a manifestation of otherness. You might even call it a cursed building, rather than a haunted one.
The character of Theo is something of an enigma. She seems to be a very liberal person for the time the book was written. There is a suggestion that she may be a lesbian, or bisexual. She lives with a ‘friend’ whose gender is never specified and to whom she is not married. She fights with the friend and that’s why she accepts the invitation. She and Eleanor have an intense and short-term ‘friendship’ that suggests the sexual without actually being it. Theo of course is not serious, and doesn’t realize that Eleanor is, that she can’t understand when people are just being frivolous because she has no experience. The writer wisely doesn’t make Theo’s sexual orientation obvious – that would be very risqué for the time (and quite possibly detract from marketing by making the book controversial). Theo doesn’t seem to be a particularly nice person. She is superficially charming, but is quite shallow and mean when she becomes bored with Eleanor’s neediness. Eleanor does not understand the problem. Theo and the other characters (Luke, Dr and Mrs Montague, and the rest) are in their own ways just as unhappy as Eleanor, but they hide things better as they have been out in the world. It simply does not occur to Eleanor that others may have the same problems, and she is too emotionally damaged to really listen and understand the things they say.
“The Haunting of Hill House” is not a scary story in a Stephen King, monsters and ghouls kind of way. It’s a story more in line with Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” which outlines events that are very much subject to interpretation. It is an atmospheric, psychological study, as much about the protagonist’s mental health as it is about the house. Eleanor’s final fate, though tragic, is probably inevitable, as she does not have the resilience to endure the house’s effects:
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
Don’t read this expecting a horror story. It is a mysterious, unsettling, slightly creepy story, heavily reliant on atmosphere and characterisation. It’s excellently written and definitely worth a read.