“We cannot say, ‘It was my imagination,’ because three other people were there too.”
“I could say,” Eleanor put in, smiling, “ ‘All three of you are in my imagination; none of this is real.’ ”
-Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
I just read The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and oh my God, y’all, it was worth every ounce of terror. I’ve been trying to categorize the book – is it a horror novel, or more of a psychological thriller? I think it’s both, which is what makes it so terrifying. Especially for those of us who spend so much time in our heads.
Jackson’s is a story of a doctor of philosophy, “who had taken his degree in anthropology, feeling obscurely that in this field he might come closest to his true vocation, the analysis of supernatural manifestations.” His interest lies in researching the occult, in trying to investigate and quantify and measure paranormal activities scientifically.
But, really, the story isn’t his. It is the story of the Hill House, a desolate, horrifying house that draws people in, and doesn’t seem to let them out alive.
To achieve his ambition of credibly studying the supernatural, Dr. Montague invites a group of strangers, all of whom have some history, however minor, of paranormal activity in their lives, to Hill House for a summer. With these psychically receptive guests, he hopes to experience, measure, and record the “haunting” of the house. Jackson’s story builds, quietly at times, with laughter and intoxicated excitement at others, and with sheer terror in the darkest hours, as we share the experiences of the inhabitants of Hill House.
Throughout the book, you are never quite sure what is happening, what will happen. Is the house shaping the guests’ minds? Is the house pushing them together and then pulling them apart, turning them against each other, making some love and others despise, or are their behaviors typical of themselves? Maybe they are just being normal. The house isn’t affecting them at all. You begin to wonder if the frightening part of the book is not the haunting of Hill House, but the terror of not knowing what’s real and what’s not, of knowing you can never escape your own mind if it turns against you. Nobody can come inside your head to hold your hand, to help you. You cannot drive out through any gate. You are stuck inside, trying, impossibly, to escape.
The thrill, and genius, in Jackson’s work, is that the answer – haunted house? unglued characters? both? – seems to be right there on the edge of your mind, like a shadow in your peripheral vision. Jackson lets you believe you’re figuring it out, deducing the answers, that you’re really close, she’ll reward you on the next page. You’re doing well, dear reader, you’re almost there.
But then, by the time you race through the final page, the few things you thought you were sure of, you suddenly begin to question. You are not sure what just happened. You’re not sure if you can trust your narrator. You’re not sure if you only got part of the story, one character’s distorted point of view. Is it really Hill House, or is this one character insane? Schizophrenic even? Facing (or embracing?) her own demons? Maybe Jackson gives you clues at the beginning, and throughout, that will help you figure out what is real, what is shared, or what might just be in one character’s mind. If you go back to this one scene, or that other, or if you start over at the beginning again, right after you’ve read the final paragraph, you’ll be able to figure it out.
I went back and checked scenes, and those terrifying events in the house were real. They did happen. It is haunted. It is not just one character’s distorted point of view.
I think. Maybe. But I’m still not sure.
And I love Jackson for doing this to me. For making me question, for making me wonder and think and analyze, for making me sense shadows in the periphery. Then showing me, as Hill House showed Dr. Montague, this cannot be pinned down. You cannot measure it. You cannot know what is real.
And so you dive back in, for both the intoxicating excitement and the mind-bending terror, hoping, maybe this time, I’ll figure it out.
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. (Publisher’s overview)