The Haunting of Hill House is a 1959 Gothic horror novel by Shirley Jackson. The titular Hill House is an 80-year old estate built in an unspecified countryside location surrounded by hills. It’s original owner Hugh Crain is long dead, but the house has had a storied history of family tension, tragedy, and death. Many believe it to be haunted; the caretakers only go on the grounds during the day and the nearby townsfolk dare not speak of it. Dr. Montague, an investigator of the supernatural, rents the property for the summer along with two assistants, Eleanor Vance and Theodora, as well as the heir to the estate Luke Sanderson, in hopes of documenting any strange happenings and finding proof of the otherworldly.
While the story is predominantly concerned with this core group, it is the perspective of Eleanor Vance that takes centre-stage. It is not told from her in the first-person, but the majority of the novel takes place through the lens of what she thinks and feels. I found her to be a fascinating protagonist, especially in the ways her behaviour often differs from what she is thinking. She was forced into a reclusive life caring for her mother for 11 years, much of her adult life thus far, which she resents. It is her drive to escape into a life of new opportunity and adventure, her mother having recently passed away, that leads to her accepting the invitation to Hill House.
Her journey to the house tells us much about her. She has a fanciful nature, often imagining elaborate fantasies with the picturesque areas she passes on the way. There is a charming quirkiness to the way she does this, though it is underlined by a sort of quiet desperation that is somewhat troubling. It establishes from the onset that her point of view is not entirely reliable, which serves to cast doubt on much of what goes on at Hill House. She is desperate to connect with these new people, yet frequently lies about her past, even about things that do not matter.
Despite being a ghost story, much more of the book has to do with the relationships that form between the core group of four. There was a really strong sense throughout of the sudden closeness between them, which at first starts off very positively. As the rush of new friendships wears off tensions do naturally start to rise as more aggravating traits become apparent. This is shown especially through Eleanor’s budding friendship with Theodora, who is more bohemian and playful, sometimes in a biting way. Shifts in characters’ feelings toward each other are often played subtly in the dialogue and the thoughts of Eleanor. I was really gripped by how context informed the group dynamics more than exposition. The shifting tension between them all fed the disquieting atmosphere of Hill House, as undeniably supernatural events do occur in front of all of them.
I really liked the way this book handled these supernatural elements. During many sequences there’s no doubt to me that something otherworldly is happening to them, but even in the midst of these events they are vaguely described. I never felt like I understood too much of what was going on, which would have diffused the atmosphere. I did find myself rereading passages during some moments of paranormal activity, but that was more to make sure I hadn’t missed any small details rather than outright confusion. Many things are witnessed by more than one of them at a time, while others by Eleanor alone. She does appear to be singled out by forces in the house in some way, yet it’s hard to be certain that the things she experiences solely are not figments of her imagination.
The book’s overall approach to the haunting, both by the characters and how it actually plays out, was surprisingly grounded. Methods like spirit writing and Ouija boards are decried as taking too much influence from the people using them and are largely shown to be just that. In this way I found the book avoided falling into the typical tropes of modern ghost stories. Dr. Montague’s method is elegantly simple, in practice: be present at the location and wait for something to happen, then take notes and measure what you can.
There are some well-known types of manifestations that take place like strange knocking sounds and cold spots, but it never gets to the point where you feel like they’re irrefutably dealing with a spirit. A force in the house appears to be asserting itself on Eleanor in some way, which some characters clearly believe to the case too, yet there’s nothing that blatantly confirms this, even just for the reader. If there is a presence in the house that is a consciousness it at no point decides to definitively reveal itself for who or what it is.
The Haunting of Hill House is undeniably a quintessential ghost story and surprisingly one of the most believable I’ve experienced. I know it’s pure fiction, but it is all grounded in such a way that I found it far more intriguing that a book that might double down on the supernatural elements and make them blatant. The approach to the study of the haunting by the characters felt realistic, if a little off-the-cuff, in a way that I’d actually apply to real life if I were serious about it. The characters are fantastic as well, tension and amiability balanced between them in a way that made me feel like I was there among them. Some of the writing did feel a little dated, but it in no way hindered my desire to keep the book in my hands. It’s simply a fantastic horror read for those more interested in atmosphere and terror than gore and violence.
My rating: 5 out of 5