Thursday, October 20, 2011

Not Exactly Waterfront Property: A Review of The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

NOTE: This is actually not my original review of this book, but it's as close as I could get. The first review (which was perfect in every sense of the word) was eaten by Word despite the fact that I was positive that I had saved my work before the program crashed. Needless to say, I was not a happy man. But, here's what I was able to recreate. It's not quite how I wanted it, but I couldn't remember everything exactly as I had written it.

Title: The Haunting of Hill House (in Novels and Stories compiled by Joyce Carol Oates)
Author: Shirley Jackson
Edition: Hardcover
Publisher: Library of America (2010)
Pages: 174 (p. 243-417)
Challenges: 2011 GoodReads Reading Challenge
How I Came by This Book: It’s October, which is the only month that I really get a craving for spooky stories. As horror isn’t a genre that I delve into on a regular basis, I had no idea what to read. This book turned up in an internet search and the synopsis sounded intriguing, so I checked it out of my library.

This is the one picture of her I could find that didn't look eerily like my mother.

About the Author: Shirley Jackson was an influential American author. A popular writer in her time, her work has received increasing attention from literary critics in recent years. She has influenced such writers as Stephen King, Nigel Kneale, and Richard Matheson.

She is best known for her dystopian short story, "The Lottery" (1948), which suggests there is a deeply unsettling underside to bucolic, smalltown America. In her critical biography of Shirley Jackson, Lenemaja Friedman notes that when Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery" was published in the June 28, 1948, issue of The New Yorker, it received a response that "no New Yorker story had ever received." Hundreds of letters poured in that were characterized by, as Jackson put it, "bewilderment, speculation and old-fashioned abuse." (from GoodReads)

Synopsis: First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a "haunting"; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers-and soon it will choose one of them to make its own. (from GoodReads)

Review: My first taste of Shirley Jackson’s work was her controversial short story, “The Lottery.” For those of you haven’t read it, I won’t give anything away, but I will admit to vehemently disliking it and vowing never to read anything else she had written. Fortunately, that was ten years ago and I have learned over time that one disliked story should never deter you from reading other things an author has written. The Haunting of Hill House made me glad that I decided to leave my high school grudge behind. This book is incredible.

The basic premise is that four strangers are spending the summer at Hill House in order to observe supernatural phenomena. The house has gotten a reputation over the years, mostly because anyone who moves into it ends up leaving soon afterwards. The book follows the four main characters over the course of the summer and what happens to them at Hill House. There’s Eleanor, the 32-year-old woman who has spent the better part of her life looking after her ailing mother and who is only just now getting her first taste of freedom after the woman’s death; Theodora, an eccentric woman who enjoys antiques and who lives with (presumably) her female lover (referred to only as her “friend”); Luke, the nephew of the current owner of Hill house who is “a liar…[and] also a thief;” and Dr. Montague, the man who brings them all together by writing them a vague but inviting letter asking if they would care to join him for the summer.

If this novel is any indication of the rest of Jackson’s work, she is immensely talented at creating a mood. The book is at times warm and inviting and at others it is cold and forbidding. She chooses her words carefully in order to express just what the characters are feeling and, in doing so, these feelings transfer to the reader. Her vivid descriptions sink the reader into the story so that it no longer feels as if he is reading about things happening to other people; they are happening to him as well. It isn’t just that she creates images of the house and of its inhabitants. The reader experiences everything as if it’s in real time. It reminded me a lot of the “feely” movies from Brave New World—it was as if I was watching a movie but at the same time feeling every shaking of the house, every cold chill, every indication that something was not quite right.

The characters that Jackson creates are instantly likeable…and then become less so as the novel progresses. It isn’t that they are bad people or that they are poorly-crafted. On the contrary—these characters are deep and relatable. Instead, it’s that the longer they stay in the house, the more they become a part of it. Jackson knows exactly how to develop these characters based on their relationships with each other and with Hill House. It isn’t until Mrs. Montague, the professor’s wife, comes for a visit towards the end of the book that you realize that something else has happened as well. When I was reading the book, I thought I disliked her simply because she was obnoxious (which she is). The more that I think about it, however, the more I realize that it’s because she’s an outsider. She just doesn’t understand what the characters have been through…what I had been through. Because it isn’t only the characters that change throughout the course of the novel; it’s the reader as well. By the end of the book I, too, had become part of Hill House and Hill House had become a part of me. You become so immersed in this book that the actions of those characters that haven’t been on this transformative journey with you seem incomprehensible, silly, and, even, dangerous.

Although told in third person, we see the majority of the novel’s action through the eyes of Eleanor. She’s a character that you really feel for at first: lonely, naïve, sad, self-conscious. The direction her character takes during the novel is the most drastic of the four characters, but none of them come out of their experience unscathed. By the time you close the book, your opinions of all of them will have changed (for better or worse), but it is important that this happens. Jackson is telling a story not of triumph but of terror, a story of the deleterious effects that fear and paranoia can have on a human being. The psychological aspects of this story make it all the more terrifying because the ghouls that haunt this house aren’t visible; the unknown nature of who they are and what they want is scarier than any slasher film or monster movie.

The Haunting of Hill House is an insanely good novel. From her use of foreshadowing to her carefully-crafted bump-in-the-night moments to the fact that you come to feel as if you are a fifth main character, I loved everything about it. Anyone looking for a good spooky read this Halloween will find it between the covers of this Jackson masterpiece.

I’m giving The Haunting of Hill House 5 out of 5 Gabriels.

When I was in fifth or sixth grade I heard the song below on A Prairie Home Companion and, even though the house in the song isn't actually haunted, it kept going through my head as I was reading this book. It has the right sort of mood and some, pardon the pun, haunting vocals. 



  1. When Mrs Montague entered the house that was the way I felt too. It was like she was the catalyst which broke apart the companionship of the group.

  2. Karen: Exactly. It was like everything was a balloon and she was the pin that popped it.