Review: “The Haunting of Hill House,” Shirley Jackson

Pros: Holy hell this story sucked me in!
Rating: 5 out of 5

Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (Penguin Classics) has Dr. Montague preparing to spend some time in the supposedly-haunted Hill House. He finds two people to come help him note what happens there (Theodora and Eleanor), plus a member of the family that owns the place stays with them (Luke). Eleanor had previously experienced a poltergeist-type incident when she was very young. Now, having cared for her ill mother for 11 years, she’s desperate to get away from it all for just a little while, and so she accepts Dr. Montague’s invitation. Right away we see that she’s a little off-balance: she spends her entire time on the drive up imagining various fantasy lives for herself, and when she arrives she incorporates pieces of those fantasies into what she tells the others of herself. Before long, strange things start happening, and Eleanor seems to be the focus of them.

Okay, so The Haunting of Hill House has been around for a long time, and is exceedingly popular. But I didn’t get around to reading it until now, so I’m going to review it just for fun. Normally older-style horror books aren’t entirely my thing; they tend to be a little slow and a little light on things actually happening. Somehow Jackson’s book managed to gradually build up the tension until I was practically vibrating. There is, of course, a question of how much of what’s going on is due to Eleanor. We know that there are things going on that the others, too, experience. But is this related to the poltergeist incident she dealt with when she was younger? Is she somehow influencing the house? Is it getting into her head because she’s the most vulnerable among them?

The character interactions make this book sing. Eleanor and Theo in particular have a quickly-shifting relationship. They at once grow close, seeing that they have much in common, but before long Theo is making snide comments to Eleanor and blaming her for ‘seeking the spotlight’ when manifestations center on her. Theo even thinks it’s Eleanor’s fault when she finds blood on her clothes. Eleanor does initially develop a sort of facile, brief crush on Luke, but quickly starts to see him as ‘uninteresting’. The woman who cares for the house and sets out the crew’s meals is fascinating, with a seeming inability to say anything other than her specific, rote phrases, with a single interesting exception.

All in all, this is a fascinating, unusual, tense ride. It’s still a little slower/lower-action than most modern horror readers expect, but it does so well with it!

“Nell?” Theodora looked up at her and smiled. “I really am sorry, you know,” she said.
I would like to see her dying, Eleanor thought, and smiled back and said, “Don’t be silly.”

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