What, you’re telling me you’ve never spent the summer in a mysterious isolated house in the middle of nowhere with a group of people you don’t know after being invited by a doctor that you’ve never met?
So, I started The Haunting of Hill House (1959) in July and never finished it. But with the nights getting colder and the vibe decidedly more spooky, I thought I would dig it out again.
Shirley Jackson is the uncontested queen of suspense and horror. One of my favourite novels of all time is We Have Always Lived In the Castle (1962); it’s a delicious cocktail of mystery, surrealism and gothic horror. But what about Hill House?
When lonely Eleanor is invited by Dr Montague to spend her summer in Hill House, she jumps at the chance to do something, anything with her life. Along with Theodora, an artistic ‘sensitive’, and Luke, the heir to Hill House, the group moves in. Upon arrival, however, it becomes clear that something in Hill House is wrong. A light-hearted social experiment soon turns to a dark, inescapable nightmare.
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality…Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, 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.”spooOoky
Undoubtedly, the best part of Hill House is the very beginning. As Eleanor makes her way to the house, I was literally on the edge of my seat, terrified. Shirley Jackson has an incredible talent for creating suspense – our omniscient narrator always toying with the reader, revealing little details but never enough for us to truly grasp why we’re so afraid, we just know that we are. The paragraph above is an excellent example – how creepy is the use of ‘whatever’?
“Journeys end in lovers meeting; I have spent an all but sleepless night, I have told lies and made a fool of myself, and the very air tastes like wine. I have been frightened half out of my foolish wits, but I have somehow earned this joy; I have been waiting for it for so long.”
(Before I say anything more, I’d like to clarify that I am terrible with horror – I got to the part in the Shining where Stephen King is literally just describing the topiary (these big hedges/bushes shaped like animals) and then shut the book. I haven’t touched it in five years. I scare easily, is what I mean.)
I think if you stop trying to see Hill House as an objectively ‘scary’ book, then it’s great. If you’re looking to be frightened, though, this isn’t it. The novel’s hallucinatory, ‘scary’ parts are undoubtedly really interesting – Jackson plays around with narrative voice, almost like a stream of consciousness. She focuses much of the novel around Eleanor’s psychological state, distorting her reality. But it didn’t scare me, and for a book that is hailed as the greatest haunted house novel of all time, I wanted to be terrified. The pace of the plot is quite slow, and often, I found myself actually feeling a little bit bored.
But you know what is really scary (and I hate myself for saying this)? The Netflix series. Oh my god, I couldn’t sleep. The plot is completely different but it’s soo terrifying!
Anyway, all I can say is if you’re going to read some Shirley Jackson, read We Have Always Lived in the Castle before you do anything else. Hill House gets 3 stars.