The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Four seekers have arrived at the rambling old pile known as Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of psychic phenomena; Theodora, his lovely and lighthearted assistant; Luke, the adventurous future inheritor of the estate; and Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman with a dark past. As they begin to cope with chilling, even horrifying occurrences beyond their control or understanding, they cannot possibly know what lies ahead. For Hill House is gathering its powers - and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.
Often lauded as the paragon of the haunted house novel, The Haunting of Hill House is a dark and malevolent collection of words designed to unsettle, perplex, and ultimately terrify a reader. Jackson’s skill here is outstanding; my anxiety levels were consistently intense for the entirety.
Four very different people arrive at Hill House to carry out an experiment on the reported supernatural activity emanating from its walls. Although written in third person, we see the house through the eyes of Eleanor Vance, a lonely and susceptible young woman who longs for acceptance and belonging. If this type of person strikes you as the kind most likely to be cajoled by dark forces, you’d be absolutely correct.
Of course, odd things begin to happen; of course it quickly becomes a house of horror, a house of tension, and a house of fraught relationships. We see each of the characters’ mental states waver, but Eleanor most of all. Jackson subtly asks us to consider whether the apparent ghostly happenings are a product of the house, or a product of someone within the house. If the answer is the latter, the theory could remain that the house is still to blame.
Jackson’s prose here is perfectly Gothic, and perfectly, deliciously, haunting. Her words seemed to ripple, to create dread, to encourage disorientation. They created a jarring and disjointed account, propelling us almost into the same emotional state as those who were in the house. She gives, she keeps things to herself, she produces the most sickening churning in the stomach.
I also really enjoyed some of the subtle commentary on social issues in the fifties. Theodora lives with a ‘friend - a clear indication of her sexuality these days, yet perhaps not quite clear enough for people at the time. This subtly would have been essential for Jackson if she didn’t want to incite outrage. Eleanor, who lives as a single woman with her sister and her husband, can pack the entirety of her belongings in a box - was this the worth of an unmarried woman back then? Her feelings of isolation and not having a home reinforce this, and heartbreakingly so.
My favourite, and the most wonderful thing here is that Jackson never explains; everything is left for the reader to interpret, and decide for themselves what happened. I feel as though I’m still reeling, still futilely trying to understand, unable to accept that I never will.
The mark of a true horror novel - one which haunts you and leaves questions behind.