A Review of The Haunting of Hill House
By: Shirley Jackson
I read this book before, in college (which was actually a really long time ago but who’s counting) in a class on horror literature. What I remembered about it, I think was the opening line—which is still one the best openers in any novel I have ever read and the rest came from that horrible movie with Owen Wilson and Catherine Zeta-Jones. So, I was excited to revisit it for this class.
My first impression, was “this seems a lot like Hell House” and I tried not to compare the two as I read. Instead, I focused on Eleanor and her strange connection to the house. Given that the entire book is written from her POV, it’s hard not to. And given that Eleanor is the only character who is written three dimensional, it’s easy to get inside her head (as frightening as that may be).
Often times, I found myself thinking about Jackson’s choice of title. The Haunting OF Hill House rather than Haunted Hill House or something similar. And I began to wonder if we were dealing with a ghost story at all. Here is what we know of Hill House: it was built by a lunatic named Hugh Crain and built deliberately off balance. Bad things happened to Hugh and his family. We know his daughters turned out similar to their father (and after finding his homemade book, one can’t be too surprised) and we know that the people of Hillsdale shun the place. But what we don’t know is what happened to anyone else who tried to live there. There is no proof of a haunting from within.
So, along comes Dr. Montague and his handpicked assistants to investigate. We know why he is there, we know that Luke was forced upon him. We are told that Theo has shown telekinetic abilities (but we never see any evidence of such during her stay at Hill House). We also meet Mrs. Montague who insists upon her own telekinetic abilities but again see no proof during her time at Hill House. The “hauntings” we do experience—and for a novel length piece, they are few and far between—all seem to be centered on or around Eleanor.
Eleanor, the child-like, sheltered, naïve woman who was invited to Hill House because as a child she was involved in poltergeist type activity. Eleanor, who looks to Hill House as her salvation, her escape from a world and family that held her back. Is Hill house haunting her or is she haunting it? I raise the theory of the latter. The house is a deformed creation doomed to suffer from the madness of its creator and in its monstrous form, draws those whose minds are as broken as its edges and angles. Eleanor falls in love with it and it, her. The two become one and it calls her home.
Eleanor, the perpetual child, finds a mother in Hill House and it, in turn, finds its soul mate. They are both the products of their creators and both slightly off.
Is there a ghost or ghosts haunting Hill house? I don’t think there is. I think it has an energy, I think most houses do. Hill House is haunted by those who are drawn to its unnatural energy. Those who are off-kilter enough to find comfort in its carnival fun-house mystery. The haunting is therefore done by the humans who inhabit it. Their energies working in a symbiotic relationship to cause horror.
The Haunting of Hill House was titled, I think, deliberately by Jackson because like many of her other works, this story is NOT a ghost story at all but a character study of the madness and power of the human mind. There is no need for the supernatural when we can do so much damage to each other. I think that is the message Shirley Jackson most frequently tried to convey in her works and manages to do so with a genius-level subtlety in this novel.