The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Publisher: Penguin Classics, 182 pages
Source: Guest review
Today we are hearing from one of our dedicated readers, Allegra Johnson, who is offering her thoughts on a classic ghost novel. Thank you, Allegra, for sharing your insights!
My path to reading The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, a long-time favorite of mine, really started with a movie—a bad movie at that. I’m not above saying that I saw this movie with a friend primarily because Liam Neeson played the doctor and we spent the movie ogling and giggling. The movie seemed pretty cheesy with a decidedly hokey ending, but it planted a seed in my mind. The way the producers portrayed the house, its dark paneling and foreboding shots, caught my imagination.
The book begins with a description of the house as an entity in and of itself—alive, dark, and evil. It hungers for something, perhaps companionship? It’s interesting that only our main character, Eleanor, seems to feel the underlying pressure and need. But I’m jumping ahead here. I went home and told my mom that the movie was a disappointment and she suggested I watch the older version of the film. We rented the video and while it was significantly better than its remake—especially the ending—it still lacked something.
The image of the monstrous Victorian house still in my mind, I did what a teenage kid with way too much summer free time would do: I turned to the book version.
The narrator of this story is Eleanor Vance, a thirty-two year old woman who spent most of her adult life taking care of her mother, who comes to Hill House with two other guests at the invitation of a Doctor Montague. The doctor wants to study paranormal activity in the house and has chosen his fellow guests, Theodora, a bright and carefree young woman with some psychic ability, and Luke, a future heir to the mansion, to help him in his study.
Eleanor is the only of these characters who has no life in the outside world. Caring for her mother enveloped her entire being, it’s entirely who she was. Eleanor states many times that she has been waiting for something to happen to her, waiting for her life to begin and “could not remember ever being truly happy in her adult life; her years with her mother had been built devotedly around small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness, and unending despair.” In short, Eleanor knows only what it is to be needed and Hill House needs her.
After a series of escalating paranormal encounters, it becomes clear that the house is interested entirely in Eleanor. There are no bogeymen to jump out at the reader from around corners, or any gruesome slaughters, but rather a sense of fear and quiet intensity building to the conclusion of the story. There are, of course, the mandatory “bumps in the night” because what’s a haunted house without those?
There is no doubt that the house is both haunted and evil. But even at the end, I find myself wondering about Eleanor. Is she acting of her own volition? Like the house, is she insane? There are moments and thoughts that suggest she is in control of herself and actions. Alternately, is Eleanor possessed by the house? Claimed by its sinister presence? Or, is Eleanor the unwitting cause or source of all the paranormal events surrounding the house? The author seems to leave the answers to the interpretation of the reader.
From beginning to end, I found the story to be absorbing and every now and then my mind wanders back to its ambiguous climax…What was going on with Eleanor?