A couple weeks ago, I wrote about a few particularly popular haunted houses in literature in celebration of Halloween. As I was writing that post, I realized that the haunted house genre is a real gap in my reading repertoire. Luckily, the book club at my local bar (yes, the bar has a book club. It’s awesome) was reading Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House for our October meeting. I quite enjoyed the book, and I wanted to share a few of my thoughts with you below.
I first encountered Shirley Jackson when I read her famous short story “The Lottery” in high school English class. The slowly settling creepiness of that story has stuck with me ever since then, and I have reread it several times. The Haunting of Hill House was the first full-length work by Jackson that I’ve read, though I keep eyeing We Have Always Lived in the Castle in the bookstore. Hill House was definitely a great haunted house novel to start with.
The general consensus of my book club meeting was that none of us found the book particularly scary, though I felt that it had an enjoyable air of creepiness. The story begins when paranormal researcher Dr. Montague decides that he wants to invite a few assistants to come live in Hill House with him for a few weeks to try to document supernatural phenomena. He sends out a few letters and winds up gathering an eclectic crew consisting of the suave and charming Luke, heir to the Hill House estate, the energetic and mysterious Theodora—”just Theodora,” and the main protagonist, shy and anxious Eleanor. Eleanor jumps at the chance to get away from her domineering sister and brother-in-law and to maybe distract herself from her guilt over her mother’s death. Unfortunately, Hill House doesn’t really make for a relaxing get-away.
The story builds up suspense by showing how all of the characters are immediately struck by a disconcerting sense of evil in the house, which they alternate between acknowledging and trying to laugh off. Adding to this atmosphere is the creepy housekeeper, Mrs. Dudley, who repeats foreboding phrases and emphasizes her refusal to stay in the house after dark.
The four visitors spend the first several chapters simply exploring the house. As the story goes on, they begin to experience some rather alarming paranormal phenomena. Strangely, much of it seems to be directed specifically at Eleanor. Her name appears written on the walls in blood—someone, or some spirit, in the house keeps telling her to “come home.” This attention from the supernatural plays into Eleanor’s anxiety about being singled out and laughed at, and as the house plays mind games with her she begins to lose her grip on reality. Though the book isn’t written in the first person, much of it is presented from Eleanor’s perspective, so we might consider her an example of the unreliable narrator trope.
Throughout the book, we don’t really get a glimpse of an actual ghost. Ultimately, the truly creepy things about the novel are the ambiguities that it leaves unresolved. Is Eleanor’s account of events true? What ultimately drove her to lose her mind? Was it the house or merely her own mental instability? How did the other characters really feel about her? And was the house actually haunted?
Check out the book and see if you can answer these questions for yourself. Already read The Haunting of Hill House? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!