Book Review: The Haunting of Hill House

Hello Travelers,

I know I tweeted that I’d review The Handmaid’s Tale next, but I’ve been swamped with various obligations. Here are my thoughts on The Haunting of Hill House, and I’ll post the other soon enough. Thank you all for your patience with my absenteeism.

Much love,

Kevin

***

Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House is arguably her most well-known work of long fiction, and it continues to stand as a foreboding tale that should be included on the shelves of any if not every horror aficionado. A tightly written narrative with an intimate set of characters, this story winds its way from a suburban beginning only to coil around readers, trapping them in the eponymous Hill House, a building with angles intentionally build to confuse and deceive, its rooms twisting labyrinthine through the darkness as doors drift shut of their own accord.

Standing in defiance of modern horror trends that tend to rely on an extreme situation within the first few pages to hook reader interest, this novel specializes in a quiet, lurking disturbance. There are no situations designed to disgust or offend; the macabre elements do not lie in the ghosts that haunt Hill House so much as they lie in the events that haunt the characters. Eleanor Vance in particular seems to exist in sharp contrast to expectations of humanity—in one line she is introduced, and in the next, we are told she hated her now-deceased mother.

The plot itself invokes similar dread, focusing on Dr. John Montague, who calls Vance and Theodora (for whom no last name is given) to the house, not disclosing the fact that the ten other invited applicants declined. Luke Sanderson, nephew to the house’s owner, attends as part of Montague’s contract to examine the place for paranormal experiences. However, it is hinted earlier that such phenomena are not limited to the dead, as Vance is said to have called a rain of stones down on her house as a child while Theodora is shown to have some telepathic power. Throughout the book, she readers Vance’s mind, making the already-fragile woman question who Theodora is and just what awaits them all in such an unsettling place.

Montague does not explain what they’re looking for as he fears nothing will happen and he’ll look foolish, but after they’ve arrived and come to spend time within the warped rooms, the group finds Hill House has its share of paranormal activity. Readers must be patient to reach these scenes, which may be trouble for more youthful readers who are accustomed to reading books with intense situations in the first few pages. The first spectral event does not occur until page ninety-three, when Vance is awoken by a loud banging and her mother calling Eleanor.

When she fully wakes and realizes this is not possible, she flees to Theodora’s room, too afraid to venture into the hallway. They cling to each other and cry out as the banging grows louder, but it stops when Sanderson and Montague return. Theodora makes jokes about the incident, making Vance out to be foolish and excitable.

But what makes this novel unique is not the spirits of the house itself, but the gradual psychological decay of those that come to stay in it. Portrayed in such a way as to be simultaneously entrancing and terrifying, this work establishes Jackson as a skilled writer of the shadows that thrive the human mind, sheltered from all light and prying eyes, to be released only when the psyche cracks. The cycle of this book and the way the ending is, in retrospect, foreshadowed from the first pages is fittingly portrayed by Jackson herself, who uses the same lines to begin and end the story:

“Hill House, not sane, stood against its hill, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its 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.”

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