I saw "The Haunting", the movie version of the book when I was in high school and I remember, quite vividly, how much it scared me. What's so ironic, taken in the context of today's effects and fireworks shows, is that back then, in the early '60s, this movie never shows a monster...or anything else that would OBVIOUSLY frighten. The breathing doors and sounds in the hall were more than ample to illustrate fear. The book is much richer in detail and includes, especially, two scenes which I feel really should have been included in the movie. The first is when Eleanor and Theo take a stroll around the grounds of the house with Luke and Theo and Luke pair off and Eleanor thinks they are right behind her. They are some distance away, yet she senses them (or something) close by. The second is after an altercation one night Eleanor stalks out of the house and Dr. Marquay sends Theo after her to bring her back. The two of them are so wrapped up in their respective inner turmoil they fail to notice how far they've walked from the house(and at Night!) They notice, suddenly, that the landscape has become like a negative photograph, with light and dark reversed...they continue on and come upon a happy scene, in bright color, of a family having a picnic. The description of this made my hair stand on end. The horror is implied and erupts only occasionally but always with tremendous effect. This is truly a modern classic of the genre...the opening lines as memorable as "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again" or "Call me Ishamel"..."Hill House, not sane, had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more...within, floors were firm, windows sensibly shut, and whatever walked there, walked alone." My suggestion...don't read this book alone, but read it!
The Haunting of Hill House remains one of the most important horror novels of all time and certainly one of the most singular haunted house tales ever written. It is certainly worth mentioning that at no time do we or the characters actually see any sort of visible ghostly manifestation; the phenomena are limited to cold spots, spectral banging on the walls and doors, messages written on walls, and torn, blood-spewed clothing in one room. If Jackson had compelled Hugh Crain (the main who built Hill House) to pop out of the woodwork and say Boo!, this story would have been long forgotten. Still, it quite amazes me that Shirley Jackson has met with such critical success and eternal popularity; I say this only because her writing style is unique and rather off-the-wall. Truly, Jackson's writing itself is haunted, and she herself almost surely was in some manner. There is a degree of insanity in every page; the characters often engage in dialogue that is childish of a sort and certainly different from normal adult conversation. I would think such idiosyncratic writing would appeal only to those like myself who are different, somewhat kooky, outsiders looking at the real world through thick-paned glass that sometimes fogs over or plays tricks with our eyes depending on the angle in which the sun hits it or does not hit it.
Eleanor is an especially appealing character to me because I share many of her doubts and fears: I don't belong, what are people saying about me?, are people laughing at me behind my back?, why am I here and where am I going?, etc. No one rivals Jackson in the ability to paint a deeply moving, psychologically deep portrait of the tortured soul. The fact that so many people praise this book must mean that most people are plagued with self-doubt, which I find sadly comforting. In any event, Eleanor is a perfectly tragic heroine; those who can't relate to her must surely at least pity her. The character of Theodora is also fascinating, as she largely represents Eleanor's opposite: a vibrant personality, full of life and a need to be in the middle of it, probably insecure inwardly but strikingly bold outwardly. This dichotomy between two "sisters" is a constant theme in Jackson's work. The Eleanor-Theo relationship is reflected and honed against the relationship of Hugh Crain's two daughters, twin souls who grew up the dark mansion as loving sisters but who eventually came to hate each other and fight for ownership rights to the house. Eleanor and Theo also have a subtle love-hate relationship, the conflict between the two representing a jealousy over the house. Both want to be the center of attention, although Eleanor would never admit such a desire, and the fact that the house itself obviously harbors a strange enchantment for Eleanor bothers Theo and enchants Eleanor. When Theo's room and clothing are painted in blood, the house clearly signifies the soul with whom its sympathies lie, and this marks a turning point in the text. Eleanor's rapid descent into madness seems a little sudden to me at times, and the exceedingly nonsensical conversations between all of the characters strikes me as quite mad. Of course, at the end, one wonders just which of the later conversations actually happened outside of Eleanor's own mind.
The introduction of the doctor's wife in the closing section of the book effects a radical change in the mood of the novel. Mrs. Montague and her associate Arthur are incredibly annoying people. Their professed beliefs in the paranormal and attempts to contact spirits by way of a planchette clearly upset the mood of both the house and its occupants (and the reader). Their over-the-top belief in spirits and determination to contact them using parlor-method techniques serve to ridicule the house and Eleanor and quickly usher in the dénouement of the story. Eleanor's sense of belonging to the house takes precedence over everything else in her life; she has come home, and the house's wish in this regard is fulfilled. The ending itself is striking and perfectly fitting, I feel, and does much to keep the spirit of this wonderful novel in your mind and soul for a long time. This is not a novel to cast aside and forget; long after you have finished the book, Eleanor and Hill House will haunt your mind and soul.
on January 17, 2000
Shirley Jackson is truly the master of horror. She weaves a dark tale of loneliness, depression, sadness, obsession and fear. Most readers, who have seen the remake, seem to be impressed with special effects and cheesy plots. This story is chilling not because of the supernatural themes, but because of the dark recesses of human nature. People don't seem to realize that the ending (without giving too much away) depicts Eleanor's response towards her feelings of isolation and depression. Who knows if she did what she did because of a ghost or because she was truly mad? was she trying to stay in the only place that understood her or was the house trying to keep her? Please, don't base this literary masterpiece on a REALLY bad movie. read the book and decide WHO was in control-Eleanor or Hill House?
on January 26, 2000
THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE is one of the most subtle yet disturbing ghost stories ever written. Deservedly a true classic of the genre and a fine piece of modern American literature, the genius of Jackson's writing is in her SUBTLETY. Generally I find that readers who don't like or understand the book don't realize that all the while they're under Jackson's spell. (it's a book many people need to read over again) This short novel is one of the RARE FEW which will LINGER in the psyche LONG after it's been read! In the previous reviews, approximately 90% of the readers who were "disappointed" felt there was SOMETHING unique about the book. Eleanor. Eleanor was never "normal" to begin with; in Hill House she was like a kid in a candy store! Unable to relate to people, the house becomes her lover and her best friend; they become as ONE. I have to admit that I would have liked the book to have been longer, but I suspect Jackson's sudden ending was her style of "shock". Shirley Jackson knew what she was doing; this book is a classic witch's brew of symbolism and, boy, does it prey in the hallways of the mind! Forget what the previous scoffers say: read this alone in bed on a stormy night and I GUARANTEE you'll agree that Jackson was a master of her craft!
on April 28, 2007
This is a very strange book. Everything seems off kilter and half mad. Jackson's style, her characters, nothing seems right, normal or sane. Miss Jackson (as she was known) is widely and rightly regarded as one of the greatest American horror writers. But do not expect a Stephen King or an Anne Rice, although both writers are said to have been influenced by her. This stuff is completely psychological and really bizarre and twisted. Miss Jackson prefers her characters to be odd and isolated and out of touch with reality. This book, written from the viewpoint of Eleanor, who is a completely unreliable narrator, is that and more. The house as a character in itself is absolutely evil. Things happen which are truly horrific but then everything settles down and one can't be sure of exactly what *has* happened. Everything falls neatly back into place until the next time. The characters visiting this house, brought together for an "experiment in the occult", regularly turn on one another and play up faults and speak behind the other's back. Friendships and kinships fall in and out, everyone generally acts completely horrible. The house has them in its grasp, they appear to have fallen under the spell of two sisters who lived in Hill House with their deranged, fanatical father. The guests in the house speak to each other childishly, they play silly games, they tease and bully and bait. There is more than an insinuation of overt sexuality, of a kind of undetailed love affair between Eleanor and Theodora, Theodora and Luke (who stands to inherit the house), and Luke and Eleanor. The doctor who initiated the experiment wavers between clarity and delusion, and when his wife turns up late in the book with her creepy assistant Arthur, everything flies to pieces and the end of Eleanor is at hand. This book will unsettle and unnerve and stick with you.
A bit about Jackson might be in order, as the woman accurately reflected her writings. Jackson wrote "The Lottery," the most controversial story ever published by The New Yorker Magazine. She had four children, was married to teacher and critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. Hyman supported his wife's writing talents, but was typical of the time and helped little in domestic affairs. Jackson was a devoted mother, interested in magic and witchcraft, and by all accounts a delightful hostess and witty conversationalist. She was also exceedingly troubled. She had many health problems and eventually became a recluse. She smoked too much, ate too much, was addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs. She suffered from intense anxiety and depression and felt persecuted by the citizens of the small Vermont town in which she lived. The fears that plagued her became a prime source of her creativity. In an unsent letter to poet Howard Nemerov she wrote, "...I have always loved to use fear, to take it and comprehend it and make it work and consolidate a situation where I was afraid and take it whole and work from these...I delight in what I fear. ..it is about my being afraid and afraid to say so, so much afraid that a name in a book can turn me inside out."
on July 29, 2008
I first read "The Haunting of Hill House" as a lonely, unpretty, extremely bookish 13-year-old girl, at that time a purchase from the Scholastic Book Club for Teens. The only way I can describe the book's effect on me is to say that it was enormously jolting, and that I have used it as the standard by which I judge the entire horror genre ever since. Needless to say, many, many other works fall far short. I reread "The Haunting" about every other summer, just to recall to myself how that first reading shocked and scared me, but moreover, to climb back inside Eleanor's head for a few hours and truly frighten myself with her enormous loneliness, her mind-bending self-alienation, and her disastrous sense that if she DID belong anywhere in her poor life, if she had any place to call home, or to call her own, it was among the diseased, deceased inhabitants of Hill House.
It wasn't until I read, recently, in the Shirley Jackson biography "Private Demons", her youngest son Barry's comments on "The Haunting of Hill House" that I think I really understood the essence of the book, even after what seems like a hundred readings of it. He says, imagine you see a ghost walk across a room. Now, did you see a ghost, or did you hallucinate the experience? It's totally subjective either way - and to his mother, he says, it made absolutely no difference whatsoever. Seeing a ghost, or imagining seeing a ghost, were equally REAL to Shirley Jackson. When you think about this, you see that to Eleanor, the events which happened to her inside (and outside on the grounds of) Hill House were as REAL to her as they would be to any of us experiencing the same things. Were the hauntings real, then? I say yes, based on Shirley's definition. Did Eleanor herself act as some kind of amplifier of the events, or even engender some of them herself? Well - personally, I think she did. "Maybe you did it yourself", huffs Theodora, after the cozy group finds chalk and then blood writings on the walls, and Eleanor begs one of the others to own up to the "joke". I think Shirley Jackson is saying, "Exactly".
The plot has been covered endlessly in these reviews, so I won't dwell on it. Either, as a reader, you can understand that what you are seeing in Hill House is skewed by the tortured/prejudiced view of Eleanor's stinted mind, and that all events are part of HER reality, since you are basically inside her mind for the whole book--or you aren't interested in her twisted reality, and if not, this book WILL bore you. I think if you were ever, even for a day, an outsider in any way - the last one chosen on a sports team, the child who has most "disappointed" your parents, the "ugly" one, the "dumb" one, the one who hears an inner dialog no one else can hear or understand...you cannot help but identify with Eleanor. You cannot help but be both enchanted by the essences that rule Hill House, and seem to speak directly to YOU, and be shockingly, horrifyingly repelled at the same time.
Exactly how MUCH horror, Shirley Jackson seems to be asking us, comes from inside ourselves? How much of it can we project upon the rest of the world? How about if a little REAL evil helps us along with the task of projecting? Hmmmm....
I will always feel that this book is well worth the reading, and the rereading. There are no big chunks of bloody, gory horror going on, and if that's your bag, there are about a billion "horror" novels you can grab to satisfy that particular fearlust. But if you want your skin to crawl, from ankle to scalp, in a nasty, cold, SMALL way that'll cause you to wake up in the night with palpitations at its memory, here's the read for you. Don't miss this exquisite book.
on August 31, 2000
Ghost and horror stories today take the "blunt instrument" approach of trying to scare us with threats of physical violence, or trying to shock and disgust us with blood and guts. They're the "fast food" of the genre, mass-produced, lacking distinction, and bad for us. Anyone can write about chainsaw-wielding demons and other such things. But Shirley Jackson has written a masterpiece. This book gets you where you really live, in more ways than one. It shows that true terror lies in a threat not to the body, but to the sanity, will, mind, and soul. The characters in this book are fully human, the language poetic, the plot a work of art. Half of the chills come from the mounting tension of waiting for something to happen, and when it finally does, we, like Eleanor and the others, live through the terror, and then we (again, like Eleanor) have the further distress of not knowing quite what to make of it. The house catches not just her but us off-guard and then it keeps us there. I only regret that although Hollywood has made two movies out of this book, both of them miss the mark completely. Maybe the third time will be the charm. Be warned: Once you read this book, you'll find that nothing else in the genre, except for _The Turn of the Screw_, can possibly measure up to it.
on October 4, 2004
Psychological terror. Shirley Jackson introduced the horror genre to numerous themes and concepts (almost like motifs today) that Stephen King has also capitalized on, such as having stones fall on a house (Carrie and Red Rose), an overpowering mother who controls a telekinetic child (Carrie), a large house/hotel isolated in mountains (Shining), a house/hotel that wants a specific person (Shining), use of a scrapbook and/or news clippings to provide historical background (Shining), etc. In this 1959 thriller, Jackson presents the horror of a haunted mansion in the hills that is desperate to claim the life of the heroine. There is no gore or mayhem in this book, but Jackson succeeds in scaring you without it. Typical of Jackson, as in her Lottery story, the ending does not wrap things up cleanly, and leaves the reader's imagination to fill in the details. The first paragraph of this book sets the scene and may be considered one of the best openers in horror fiction. Good stuff.
Several caveats however. Shirley Jackson wrote this book in the 50s. The text has long passages of exposition, is short on dialogue, and frequently delves into the minds of its characters, with viewpoint shifts and tense changes that may confuse the less attentive reader. The book is fairly short, around 50,000 words, as opposed to the 100,000 typical of a King novel. The book is well worth reading, but you will have to work to read and enjoy this story.
on December 13, 1999
The Haunting Of Hill House opens with a very observant comment on sanity. It's a truly great opening line. Most of the book is superb. In an age of gore and one-dimensional characters, Jackson's old novel is a breath of fresh air. Jackson creates an opiate-like dreamstate that holds you to the plot development. Unfortunately, this spell is shattered by the arrival of Dr. Montague's wife & her driver. They are abrasive and crude and have no place in the atmosphere created by Jackson's earlier pages. Luckily, they don't arrive until late in the book. She had me completely until their arrival. After that, the story becomes disjointed and erratic. I do think this book is worth a person's while, though I don't feel that it lived up to its reputation. It was beautifully constructed...it just wasn't completed in the same style. It's sort of like seeing a wonderful Victorian house completed with a tin roof. It could have been more appropriately entitled The Hauntings Of Hill House's Inhabitants' Heads. The tension and comraderie between the characters intrigued me more than any supernatural threats. There are some wonderful insights to the human mind hidden in these pages.
Rather than beat every detail from her subject, author Shirley Jackson performs an astonishing feat by creating a sense of mounting terror not from what is seen, but what might be seen if we could only look around that corner, down that hall, behind that drape. And THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE is her masterpiece.
In an effect not unlike Henry James' famous "The Turn of the Screw," Jackson presents us with Eleanor Vance, a woman who may or may not be already disturbed to the point of madness when the novel begins. Invited to join a group of researchers investigating a reputedly haunted house, Eleanor--stifled by unhappy memories and an unsympathetic family--leaps at the chance for escape from her humdrum life. She wants adventure, romance, a dash of excitement. And at Hill House, a Victorian mansion of truly evil repute, she finds it in abundance.
Is there something--ghost, spirit, or simply mindless evil--at Hill House? Or is it Eleanor herself, empty and hungry for a place where she belongs, who creates the nightmare that swirls about the place? Jackson offers no easy answers in this, the finest American horror novel of the 20th century, a book often imitated but never equaled. It is certainly not a novel for reading alone in the dead of night, but is one that you may wish to read again and again, repeatedly testing the boundaries of reality--and guessing at that which is always just beyond the limits of our vision.