Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (novel #189)

The house was vile. She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.


The Haunting of Hill House is of course, a horror story. 


Or is it? It is often called a gothic horror story. I certainly agree with the gothic part, but horror? I’m not so sure. 


Hill House has a sinister reputation, and it comes to the attention of Dr. John Mantague, an investigator of the supernatural. He’s probably not taken very serious by his academic colleagues, and he sets out to occupy Hill House one summer to document its – peculiarities? – with the assistance of volunteers, Theodora and Eleanor, who are to take notes and be corroborating witnesses. Both have had alleged experience with the paranormal. The party is completed by Luke Sanderson, skeptic, nephew of the owner, and apparent heir to Hill House.


The story is told primarily from Eleanor’s perspective, which casts an uncertain light on the mysteries of Hill House. I thought Eleanor was a flake from nearly the first minute she is introduced, and not because she believes in the supernatural. As the story unfolds, I realize she isn’t just a bit flakey, she’s rather nuts, and in the end, quite mad.


Which makes her entire perspective unreliable. I’m certain this was Jackson’s intent. Vague sort of SPOILER ALERT ahead.


I’m not sure if Hill House was haunted, or if Eleanor is just mad. Or something in between. Perhaps Hill House drove her mad, or perhaps it possessed her. 


Is there a term for that author’s device of intentional ambiguity? Especially of the climactic ending? If there is, Jackson uses it well, coupled with her beautiful prose.


No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of cornice. Almost any house, caught unexpectedly or at an odd angle, can turn a deeply humorous look on a watching person; even a mischievous little chimney, or a dormer like a dimple, can catch up a beholder with a sense of fellowship; but a house arrogant and hating, never off guard, can only be evil. This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity. It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed.


I wanted to love this, or at least be terrified by it…but neither. It isn’t terribly scary, and I was a bit disappointed in the ambiguous ending. It's still very much worth the read. I’ll definitely read more by Shirley Jackson.


And don’t take my word for it. Stephen King listed it among the finest horror novels of the late 20thCentury, and Neil Gaiman named it as the scariest book of fiction he’d ever read. (From this I conclude Gaiman never read Ulysses.)



My rating 3 ½ out of 5 stars



I read this for R.I.P. XVI, and The Classics Club spin #28




  1. I was a bit disappointed by this one too and had expected it to be scarier. I thought We Have Always Lived in the Castle was a better book.

  2. I've been meaning to read Jackson for some time, but I think I'll start from We Have Always Lived in a Castle. But I will keep this one in mind, in case I'd like to read more from her. Thanks for the review, Joseph!


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