“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)
16 thoughts on “The Haunting of Hill House: Holy Crap.”
I recently read this for the first time and could not. put. it. down.
I couldn’t either, Lesley. Until I went out of town and stayed in a strange house and my husband wasn’t with me. I put it down then. And picked it back up when I was safe in my own bed, with my husband 6 inches away.
I never thought of reading the book. The first movie made after the book, The Haunting with Claire Bloom and Julie Harris is one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen, even though everything is left to your imagination. No blood, no gore, just pure imagination. I’ll have to add the book to my list, although I may have to read it in the daylight. Watch the original movie.
The movie was great, the book will blow you away!
Thanks, I’ll rally have to give it a try.
Yes, definitely read it in daylight!
I decided it was a love story, so glad you liked it. I think it’s Jackson’s best work.
Tell me more, Uncle Syd. A story of unrequited love, of Nellie for Theo (or vice versa?), or a love triangle between Luke, Nell, and Theo? Or none of the above? I am intrigued. My mind never went to love story.
My Library of America copy says Jackson’s protagonosts are “mostly unloved daughters in search of a home, a career, a home of their own…” fulfillment. Yes, a story of Nell’s unrequited love. An unfulfilled love. Not for anyone in particular, just an all consuming state of “wanting”…and wanting to give. Someone once said it’s like a hurt, a hurting. I always wished I could have met her and given her some happiness; such an empathetc person, so ready, finally, to have some long deserved joy in her life. Julie Harris was ther perfect person for the movie. I think the story touches something in all of us.
I agree: the book – and movie – are terrifying. (I saw the film on a Fright Night late night weekend tv broadcast and don’t think I slept much that night!) Shirley Jackson is also the author of a classic short story titled “The Lottery” that’s in many anthologies and is also haunting. Well worth hunting down! —Jadi
I keep hearing about The Lottery, and a friend sent me a link – I’m going to read it today. Thanks!
“Journey’s end in lover’s meeting,,,” it was the House, it was the end of her journey, and it gave her everything she’d ever wanted.
Yes, I am starting to see your idea of this as a love story. I tried over and over to figure out the relevance of that line, and in the end, Nellie has found where she fits in, where she belongs. I love it!
Couldn’t agree more! And that amazing opening: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill house, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for 80 years and might for 80 more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
Kind of like Beauty and the Beast, w/ H.C. the Beast
The bottom of everything, I think, is a love story.
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