Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Title: The Haunting of Hill House
Author: Shirley Jackson
Publisher:  Penguin (2006)
Originally published in 1959
Anyone keeping track of Michael and me over the years of our joint posting will know that October always gets a scary title. What you may not know is that I always let Michael pick these. I don't read much in the horror genre so it's handy for me that Michael has a lot of good recommendations. This year's scary title is different from the rest: it's a straight-up ghost story. Previous titles have been more along the lines of horror thrillers. I realized when reading The Haunting of Hill House that it might very well be the first ghost story I've ever read.
For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of The Haunting

The Haunting of Hill House takes place in about a week's time following four individuals who have met at Hill House to investigate the weird tales that have surrounded the house during its 80yr existence. Only one of the four knows the place is hinky but the others are game to continue on even when they get there and realize the place is full of the creeps. Our fearless leader is one Dr. Montague but it's one of his assistants the reader follows while Hill House expresses itself.

Eleanor Vance has been taking care of an invalid relative for over a decade and when that relative dies she's perfectly willing to start a new chapter in her life by answering a vague job ad. After sort of stealing the car she shares with her sister she makes her way to Hill House, but only just barely. She's almost as ready to just keep driving. I assume this is due to her highly imaginative nature creating a new reality in every town she visits. Her imagination, by the way, is huge and entertaining. I found myself constantly smiling at her mental gymnastics and the avenues of conversation she would pursue.

At the house, she meets the doctor and his two other assistants. She strikes up an immediate rapport with Theodora and gets along well with Luke, a member of the family who owns the house. Theodora is a bit whimsical with a great sense of humor that appeals to Eleanor personally and, if I may say so, imaginatively. It doesn't take long for the four of them to make the house (and its housekeeper, Mrs. Dudley) the butt of many jokes regarding the ridiculously high creep factor.

 "I don't stay after I set out dinner," Mrs. Dudley went on. "Not after it begins to get dark. I leave before dark comes."
 "I know," Eleanor said.
 "We live over in the town, six miles away...
 So there won't be anyone around if you need help...
 We couldn't even hear you, in the night...
 In the night," Mrs. Dudley said, and smiled outright. "In the dark,"she said, and closed the door behind her.

Many of her warnings and admonitions are repeated with little alteration or heed to responses.

Mrs. Dudley turned her eyes to him. "I clear off at ten," she said. "The dishes are supposed to be back on the shelves. I take them out again for lunch. I set out lunch at one, but first the dishes have to be back on the shelves."

When she sets table had to have been repeated at least ten times and that shelf bit is just too funny. So why wouldn't they joke about the creepy house and its odd retainer.

 "Did I understand correctly," Theodora went on, "that Mrs. Dudley is not going to come if we scream in the night?"
 "It was not what she agreed to."

But things begin to take a decided turn from humor and veer straight into scary. And that's when the story kind of lost me. Turns out, ghost stories don't really scare me. If I can imagine a nefarious human behind the weird events using superstition as a tool of terror then I can get into the story and be scared with the protagonist(s) but just weird things that are supposed to be ghosts? Turns out, I can't suspend my imagination. Instead of being scared or creeped out, I was just feeling bad for Eleanor. A couple of my interpretive theories are spoilerish so highlight below if interested:

SPOILERISH BEGIN: I tried to entertain the idea of the Dudleys being behind it, perhaps feeling like they were the true owners of the house (perhaps even being related to the disinherited sister) but what was happening in the house seemed beyond the limits of a two person terror crew - plus the narration slips into Mrs. Dudley's mind for brief moments and it just didn't fit that she had something to do with it. The other idea (see how much I wasn't interested in ghosts???) was that it was simply Eleanor losing her grip on reality. That's a pretty legitimate interpretation given her imaginative nature but she wasn't the only one seeing the weird events and the rest of the house guests were clearly frightened, as well. So back to ghosts, I guess??? END.

Now, I can watch a ghost story and be scared but I think that has more to do with film making than with ghosts. In a book, you just can't startle the reader. So, rather than being scared while reading this I just felt sad for Eleanor and a little bored during the second half of the book. But as I was looking up something about this title I came by a review by someone who is scared of ghost stories so I thought it would be interesting to link her review for an alternative perspective. And I am in complete agreement with her assessment of the excellent writing [emphasis mine]:

  The story is narrated from Eleanor’s point of view and it’s through her eyes that we experience everything that the group does. The story starts really slowly and for the first 100 or so pages nothing significant happens in terms of paranormal activity. Until it does: and it is terrifying.
  The thing is, those first pages are essential to this storytelling and to understanding the presumed supernatural elements....
  In Eleanor’s narrative lies the brilliance of this novel. It is as engaging as it is unnerving – all the more so because it is possible to see the little, subtle lies she tells the group about herself. Then, little by little, things start to change as the group experience the events.

So about the movie...  don't forget to check out Michael's post.

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Coming up next:

Our annual holiday break. See you in January!


  1. Fine review, Rachel. Yes, the book, and ultimately the film, are more supernatural thrillers than a traditional ghost story, but it is one that can 'creep' up on the reader/viewer. I'd also heard of this novel, mainly from Stephen King's Danse Macabre book years ago. I did enjoy Jackson's eloquent prose and the complex relationships in the tale. And did manage to creep me out some even though I knew where it was going. I am glad I could finally read this and then look back on its film adaptation. Made me enjoy both, for the first time and once again, respectively. Wonderful way to finish up this year's duo posts, Rachel. Many thanks.

  2. It feels extra super lame when your own blog eats your comments!!! Grrr! Will try to re-create...

    Completely agree regarding prose and relationships! So well done. The great characterization leaps from the page from the very start. I am going to check out some more of her writing.

    Definitely a great way to end the year. Thanks for the suggestion and for another great year of books and their adaptations. :)