The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
|Book Name:||The Haunting of Hill House|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook|
It’s a safe bet to assume that most if not all of us have heard of Shirley Jackson, regardless of how much of her work we’ve read. My first experience with her writing came from high school, when I was exploring the school library to see what sorts of books were available that couldn’t be found in the library of my middle school or the YA section of my public library. I found Agatha Christie and Dan Simmons, and shortly after going to see Stardust I stumbled across a book called Anansi Boys.
I also found a collection of short stories, one of which was the work most of us associate with Shirley Jackson, whether or not we’ve read it: “The Lottery”.
After that, I’m sorry to say, I didn’t encounter her work at all. The school library only had the one book, and there were so many other things to read. I did remember the stories, though particularly the horror stories held at the end of the book, and from time to time I would remember small details. I never recalled anything specific aside from “The Lottery”, but I had fond enough memories of her work that when a friend of mine spotted a copy of The Haunting of Hill House in a used bookstore, I threw away any plans of only buying one book and picked it up as well.
My only regret is not waiting until I could get properly scared by it.
This isn’t to say I wasn’t scared at all, despite reading it on peaceful mornings rather than late at night. It’s a chilling book, and if that isn’t made clear from the title, you’ll understand it from the very beginning of the book. Hill House, the narration tells us, is not sane and has “stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within” for eighty years. To this house come four people eager to uncover its secrets: Dr. John Montague, a scholar seeking physical evidence of hauntings; Luke Sanderson, the heir to the house; Theodora, Dr. Montague’s cheery assistant who admits to no last name; and Eleanor Vance, a lonely woman with poltergeists in her past. What they find…well…to tell would spoil it.
And the truth is that it would. This is not the sort of horror novel that opens with terror and death and refuses to relent. This is the sort of horror novel that opens with an announcement of the terror waiting and then delves at once into the characters, telling their stories before they arrive at the house. In fact, Eleanor’s drive to Hill House does not focus on her thoughts of its being haunted but on how much she would like to simply run away from the life she lives and fantasizing about living in the houses she drives past. When she does arrive at Hill House, the first thing that strikes her is just how forbidding it is and how unwelcoming the housekeeper, but as soon as Theodora arrives, the terror sinks below the surface of the novel.
While I may not recall the details of the stories I read all those years ago, I do remember how understated the horror aspect was. A story about a woman going about her daily errands becomes chilling with the occasional mention of a song stuck in her head which coincides with minor disasters, such as a heavy vase falling from a ledge and nearly striking her head.
“The Lottery”, whose reputation had led me to expect a bloody tale which would leave me shaking, was frightening not for the blood but for the good cheer which preceded it. The Haunting of Hill House is the same. While we never truly forget that it is a horror novel, it isn’t one which leaves your heart racing at the end of every single chapter. In fact, during the first half of the book I was laughing aloud, and I even asked my friend if it really was as scary as she had warned me it would be. After all, surely something so lighthearted couldn’t leave me shaking.
Then, halfway through, it all struck at once.
I haven’t gone back and reread the book yet. I bought it the day after Labor Day and read it over the following week, and I try to leave at least several months between rereads so I don’t simply gloss over the details because I’m still all too familiar with the plot. I’ll get back to it sometime next year, perhaps next Halloween, though I think I already know what I’ll find.
I’ll find a book that blends humor with horror in such a skillful way that neither one entirely dominates and yet neither feels compromised for the sake of the other. I’ll find a book that very likely has hints scattered through that amusing first half of the horror that is to come, hints which I only began to pay attention to when reading essays about the book weeks after finishing it. I’ll find a book that has characters I can genuinely care about (even as the characters are far from being perfect people) and, on top of that, has a fantastic friendship between two women, something which is all too rarely seen in fiction.
So this Halloween, keep the candy for yourself, turn down the lights, and curl up with a blanket and a copy of Shirley Jackson’s novel. Just be sure you do it in a house where none of the angles were created with the intent to disorient you. You’ll be unnerved enough without that.