Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Book Review - Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Published by: Library of America
Publication Date: 1962
Format: Hardcover, 832 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy
None of the villagers go to Hill House. No one will hear you scream, in the dark, in the night. Dr. Montague views the house as the ideal location for his research of supernatural phenomena. He sends out numerous invitations to participate in his summer long program taking place at Hill House. Dr. Montague has selected those people who are prone to or have encountered the supernatural before. In the end he gets the shy and awkward Eleanor who spent much of her life caring for her mother who is recently deceased and she doesn't even remember the incident for which Dr. Montague recruited her. Nell just views Hill House as her first real adventure and a way to get out from under the stifling life she's living on a cot at her sister's. Theo was chosen because of her apparent psychic abilities. Then there's Luke. Luke is the heir to Hill House. He has not abilities or haunting experiences, he just needs to get out of his troubling patterns and his grandmother thinks locking him away at Hill House as a guarantee against Dr. Montague's lease is a lovely idea.

After each of the people successfully battle their way past the suspicious caretaker, Mr. Dudley, and get explained the rules as regards meals and clean up by his wife, Mrs. Dudley, the group settle in. It does not take long for weird knocks to happen at doors in the night as well as severe temperature drops. The doors don't like to remain open, if this is Mrs. Dudley, or the house, they can't figure it out. Very shortly they instigate a rule that no one is to wander alone, especially at night. Yet what is actually happening, if they where to write it down as per Dr. Montague's research guidelines, they wouldn't or couldn't be able to put it into words. Strange writings, noises, voices, drafts and above all four very different personalities clashing, not counting the possible personalities of the house's former occupants. Is any of this real? Or are they hallucinating? Or should they all leave the house as fast as they can and never look back?
The Haunting of Hill House is kind of the standard to which ghost stories are held. Even Stephen King has been known on more than one occasion to extol the virtues of the book. My question is why? Jackson is an amazing writer, she is able to depict places and characters so well that you feel you are inhabiting them. Yet this one fell short for me. I think I had a similar reaction to this as I did to my first experience with The Turn of the Screw, which this book very much emulates, in that I was left scratching my head and wondering why. We are left with open ended ambiguity, which, while I'm ok with that, after all I really liked Jackson's other famous work, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which also had an ambiguous ending, but still, there was a feeling of resolution. The story goes on, yet we leave them where Jackson wanted us to, there's more, but we get enough. Here, I DID NOT GET ENOUGH!

There isn't even enough of what one would deem a plot. Any time anything vaguely spooky happens it's just glossed over. The big scene where Theo and Nell are running from something, that's it, they ran, cut to the next morning where it will never be mentioned again. This is just not scary, you just don't know what's going on and you just don't care after a while. If Jackson was trying to build suspense and paranoia by not showing us things than she failed, miserably. You have to show us enough so that or brains can fill in the gaps with our own horrors. Showing nothing at all is basically writing a story about nothing.

Nell is interesting, but you can't really get a read on her. You know what it's like to be inside her, but it quickly becomes clear that this isn't an asset to the storytelling. Her mind jumps and contradicts and doesn't make any kind of sense. I can see why the newest film version tried to make some sort of reasoning for Nell's behavior. Because if she is crazy, she didn't really come across as crazy; not like Merricat in We Have Always Lived at the Castle. Plus the leisurely pace of badminton and long meals and chess games builds no tension. You don't feel that these characters are just sitting around in fear of the next event, more that the next event will just be a little blip in their otherwise languorous lifestyle. They are so laid back about the "haunting" that it is very easy to believe the theory that the house isn't in fact haunted in the least and it might all be Nell. I think the final nail in this book's coffin for me is that the laughably bad Jan De Bont version of the film left more of an impression on me than this book. Though I should mention, no matter how bad the film is, it was really well cast.


I read this recently and my reaction was much the same as yours. After seeing it held up as a great creepy house, ghost story over and over, I was very disappointed.

I will say though, seeing as a read it awhile back, it sticks with you, so I think that's why it remains so popular, it's staying power vs. it's quality.

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