Summary: First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.
Review: After watching and really enjoying the new Netflix adaptation of this story, I decided it was high time I actually sat down and read the novel that inspired it. I mean, I also watched the 1999 movie adaptation and enjoyed that, so surely the book must be good too. (Don’t judge me; I was in high school, and I saw that movie on a date and was thrilled to death with an openly-bisexual character. I was easily impressed then and had no refinement to my movie-watching tastes.)
Anyway, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (often reprinted as simply The Haunting) is a short read, quick and to the point, but with plenty of room for interesting interpretation and discussion. The story is told from the perspective of Eleanor, nicknamed Nell, who accepts an invitation to Hill House after the death of her mother. Life is… difficult for Eleanor, to say the least. She lives with family who doesn’t think much of her, doesn’t have a strong personality, and spent her whole adult life caring for her ailing mother and carries residual guilt for the woman’s death. She welcomes the chance to get away from things, even if just for a little while.
The other temporary inhabitants of Hill House are Dr Montague, a researcher hoping to find evidence that Hill House is haunted, and that certain “sensitive” people might bring out conclusive evidence; Luke Sanderson, a man in line to inherit the house some day, and Theodora, who refuses to admit her surname and who Eleanor takes quite a fancy to, becoming fast friends with her despite her rather mercurial personality. There are also the Dudleys, who take care of the house but are rarely seen (Mrs Dudley is seen more than her husband, but her dialogue is often the same day in and day out, and she seems mostly put out by any change to routine, which made me wonder if she was a touch neuroatypical), and eventually Mrs Montague and her companion Arthur show up to thoroughly annoy the hell out of everyone, including the reader. But for the most part, we’re dealing with Eleanor, Theodora, Luke, and Dr Montague.
Hill House itself may well be counted as a character, since it certainly seems to contain some sort of will or intelligence of its own. During the brief time people stay there, odd things happen, such as messages to Eleanor showing up in strange places, or door closing of their own accord (though that could possibly be explained by the whole house being built with very slightly odd angles, which is addressed in the book), or phantom noises and shapes darting through hallways. The problems don’t seem to come from particular spirits or personalities that remain within the house so much as they come from the house itself, which is an interesting take on haunted house since most such stories typically involve a malevolent personality lingering on after death to cause problems. No, here the problem is the house itself, and whatever will it possesses.
As for Eleanor herself, I have to say right here that I feel so very bad for her. Her life hasn’t been easy, as I previously mentioned, and over the course of the story you can see her mental state start to slip. Her thoughts become disordered and occasionally repetitious, she acts in ways that are completely at odds with what’s going on inside her head. She doesn’t start off this way, not really, but her time in Hill House affects her very strongly.
And a lot of what she experienced was incredibly relatable to me, as I’ve dealt with mental illness in some form for pretty much as long as I can remember. Certain scenes in The Haunting of Hill House felt like they were half lifted from my own life, with myself as Eleanor, and that was more than a little bit distressing. I recall one scene where she was behaving perfectly politely, very civil and kind in her conversation with others, while thinking to herself that she wanted nothing so much as to hurt Theodora. That disconnect between internal and external, thought and action, was uncomfortably familiar to me, and I think Jackson did a very good job of conveying just how much we put on a mask, so to speak, to appear normal and do what’s expected when inside we’re anything but. The way Theodora used Luke against Eleanor, too, to make Eleanor jealous that Theo was giving her attention to someone else, eerily echoed the way one of my old friends treated me for some time.
Bonus cringe in that I absolutely had a crush on this friend at the time, so the echoes are even more poignant. (Theodora is absolutely coded as not being straight. I wondered if that was something that was in the original story as well as the film and TV adaptations, and yes. Yes it is.)
When it comes to The Haunting of Hill House, you often find people getting into discussions about whether Nell’s behaviour were due to mental illness or the house’s malign influence. Rarely do I ever see people talk about how it could be both — for some reason people often insist it has to be either one or the other. For my part, it seemed to me that Eleanor really did suffer from some degree of mental illness, exacerbated by whatever odd energies were made manifest in Hill House. To ignore the idea that something supernatural was occurring would be tantamount to saying that Eleanor was entirely alone in the house the whole time and hallucinated the whole thing. Other people experienced different events, or even the same events that Eleanor did, after all. Now yes, there are times where, if you read between the lines a little, the book seems to suggest that sometimes Eleanor does hear people speak when in fact they said nothing at all, but that’s a far cry from imagining whole conversations with multiple people. Of all the people in the house, Eleanor had the most damage, was the most desperate for a place she could call home, and Hill House preyed upon that need. It could have been any of them, really, but what self-respecting predator wouldn’t prey upon the weakest in a group, after all?
So yes, Eleanor absolutely suffered from mental illness, and that explains a number of things within the story, but mostly the things that are contained to Eleanor herself, her reactions and thoughts. External events, especially ones witnessed by others, are another matter.
In the end, while the tone of the writing in The Haunting of Hill House definitely feels a bit dated, the story itself is solid, the characters varied and interesting, and for such a short book, there’s a lot to unpack. This review really only brushed the surface, and I left out a lot of what I wanted to say about smaller scenes and random bits of dialogue that had personal meaning, and when you get right down to it, that’s exactly how a good horror story should be. It should make a mark, leave an impression, and give you plenty to come back to even once the last page has been read and the book closed. This is a classic for a reason, and I recommend reading it if you have the opportunity.