The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

I never read scary books, but Shirley Jackson is an author I have heard so much about that I couldn’t resist reading one of her novels when I found it sitting on the shelf in the Mid Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library. The creepy cover unnerved me, but I steeled myself and began reading. Little did I know that this book would prove so addictive that I hid it under my desk at work to snatch the occassional paragraph during the day, and then sat up until midnight reading until I’d finished. Shirley Jackson knows how to weave a very good story, and though there are no conclusions, this was still an immensely satisfying read that sent many a shiver down my spine. It’s hard to be really scared by a book, but this really does have the power to terrify!

Hill House, an eighty year old mansion built in a secluded, dark spot at the bottom of some hills, is well known to be a haunted house. Marred by tragedies and seemingly supernatural events, it is considered to be ‘evil’. Dr John Montague, a psychologist interested in the paranormal, decides to investigate the house to see if he can find any evidence of ghostly activity within its walls. Therefore, he rents the house off its current owner, who has never lived there, and invites several people who have been known to have experienced supernatural phenomena to join him for a month. Only two women accept his invitation; shy, solitary Eleanor Vance, a thirty two year old woman who has spent her entire adult life caring for her now dead mother, and Theodora, a beautiful, lively free spirit. Along with these two comes Luke, the nephew of the house’s owner, who is young, adventurous, and flirtatious. They all turn up at the house prepared to stay a month, and none expect anything untoward to happen. However, before long, strange and terrifying events unfold, and the house appears to be awakening from its long slumber…

This is a difficult novel to write about, because if I say too much, I’ll completely ruin the element of shock and suspense that makes it such a successful read. Needless to say, it is very disturbing, and genuinely frightening, and it is unclear as to whether many of the events have actually happened, or whether they are all in the characters’ minds. Eleanor is the main focus of the supernatural activity, and as she becomes more and more unbalanced by the house and its happenings, Jackson raises the question of whether we can really believe that Eleanor’s experiences are real, or whether they are simply the projection of her disturbed mind. Jackson’s portrayal of this motley crew of strangers, and their own reasons for coming to the house, gives plenty of reasons to doubt that the house is actually haunted, but then it’s also difficult to write the events off completely as nothing but paranoia and mental disturbance.

By ‘choosing’ Eleanor as its main victim, the house appears to be pitting them against each other by singling just one of them out. As the days go by, arguments and tensions build between the would be ghost hunters, and the once jubilant atmosphere becomes tense and strained. The supposed inherent evil of the house seems to be tainting the characters’ personalities as well as causing terrifying night time visitations. However, the doubt remains; is the house really haunted, or is it just the power of fear brought about by hearsay really the source of the paranormal and terrifying events people have experienced there over eighty years? By the end of the novel, this question is still not answered, but it will leave you wondering for days, trying to work out whether there is a rational explanation. Jackson is an incredibly skillful writer, and her characterisation and ability to conjure up a scene of strangeness and terror in just a few well chosen words is truly brilliant. This is the first book I’ve read that has made me feel absolutely terrified and unwilling to turn the next page. I loved it, and I’ve already placed a hold on another of her novels, We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  A perfect Hallowe’en read!

39 comments

  1. Shirley Jackson is someone I only came across as a result of the blogging world – I was gripped by this and We have always lived in a castle. It’s perfect for this time of year – I bet the US is full of all things Halloween as they seem to go for it even more than the UK does these day.

    1. Me too Verity – I’d never heard of her before either and then everyone started blogging about her and I was desperate to find out whether she was as scary as everyone said! Oh yes – everywhere is covered in Halloween stuff. The Main Street of Tarrytown where I work has decorations and stuffed scarecrows on every lamppost – it looks amazing!

  2. I love this book. Years after first reading it I am still stuck with the images of the cup of stars and the staircase climb.

    And I thought We Have Always Lived in the Castle was even better!

    1. It’s certainly a book that stays with you – Shirley Jackson is brilliant at capturing the imagination. I can’t wait to read We Have Always Lived in the Castle!

  3. I’m not much of a scary book reader either, but like you, this one was perfect! It was so subtly scary and so much… deeper than cheap thrills and scares. I loved the open ended quality of it. I hope you read more of Shirley Jackson– We Have Always Lived in the Castle is particularly great!

    1. Yes, exactly – it’s not a cheap or obvious thriller, but much more subtle and well crafted, really digging into what it is that makes us fearful. I am certainly very very keen to read more Jackson – I have other titles on hold at the library!

  4. I have heard of this book and have wondered at its terror, which you have articulated so well here. It has been awhile since I’ve been held captive by a frightful read. We Americans do make a deal out of Halloween, as I suspect you are discovering, and around this time bookstores and libraries place their haunting stories up front . Boo!

    1. This is really a frightful read, Penny – something to send a true chill down your spine! Yes, the Hallowe’en celebrations are very noticeable and also very endearing – I love how people make such an effort to decorate their homes and shops with pumpkins and gourds and so on. I am looking forward to getting dressed up and joining in!

  5. Me again. Now I remember why the author sounds so familiar. She wrote the short story, “The Lottery”, which was required reading for American Lit in high school in my day. That story has stayed with me all these years and kept me up the night I read it for class. I even blogged about it once. shiver

  6. I finished Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle on Halloween night last year… during a thunderstorm with power outage using my book light. It was perfect! I’ve planned on reading The Haunting of Hill House ever since.

    1. JoAnn, you are a braver woman than I! I hope my copy of We Have Always Lived in the Castle is available at the library before Hallowe’en! I want to get in the spirit!

  7. Well, I wasn’t planning on bringing The Haunting of Hill House with me to New York, but now I feel like I really, really want to. It’s a lovely spooky book! I have a girl-crush on Shirley Jackson for how well she creates the mood in her books.

    1. You should Jenny! You are moving here just in time for Hallowe’en after all! I want to read more Shirley Jackson desperately…I think my hold on We Have Always Lived in the Castle is ready now so I am going to be reading that very soon and I can’t wait!

  8. I, too, had never heard of Shirley Jackson before I started reading book blogs, but you’ve got me really intrigued now! Thanks for the review, I’ll have to keep an eye out for this one.

  9. That cover reminds me of watching really cheesey scary movies when I would babysit in the seventies!

    And aren’t you a girl after my own heart with your sneaking paragraphs here and there, Rachel. You just have to love a story that has you doing that! This definitely sounds like a fabulous read for Hallowe’en but I hate it when things aren’t tied up in a bow! I’ve only recently settled The Little Stranger in my mind but I must say reading everyone’s ideas was fun.

    1. Hahahaha! I want to see the original film actually, I’ve heard it’s really scary!

      I know, I felt so naughty, but this is a book you really can’t put down! Yes if you want a nice neat ending and some closure then this isn’t the book for you, Darlene! I normally can’t stand books like that either but I liked the way I could rationalise and un-scare myself with this as much as I could terrify myself by thinking of the alternative option!

  10. Shirley Jackson’s short stories are also excellent (not just the much-anthologized “The Lottery”) and I strongly recommend them. I have a collection of her stories called (I believe) JUST AN ORDINARY DAY. Jackson had a rather difficult life and died at quite a young age. There’s a good biography (one of several, I’m sure) called PRIVATE DEMONS.

    1. I think the NYPL has that volume of short stories Deb, so I will check it out. I’d be fascinated to read more about her life as well, so thank you for that recommendation. To write such dark stories, she must have had an interesting soul…

  11. Just been googling Shirley Jackson after reading your review. I like the idea of a scary seasonal read and it’s a genre I’m not familiar with.

    1. I think you’d enjoy her, Nicola – an excellent female writer who transcends the expectations of what is ‘feminine’ fiction. This is such a scary book – I’m not sure how scary her others are – and I would highly recommend it if you want to send chills down your spine!

  12. Wow, so happy I stumbled upon this blog🙂 I have been thinking for the past couple of days ‘Gosh there are no novels out there anymore with really scary stuff’ so I have added Shirley Jackson to my wishlist in Bookmooch and hopefully I’ll get to read her quite soon *fingers crossed*

    1. I’m happy you stumbled upon this blog too, Yurena! Welcome!🙂 Oh this is a scary one…you’ll love it, I’m sure! Hope bookmooch comes up with the goods for you very soon!

  13. I was leant We Have Always Lived in the Castle about four or five years ago by an American friend, and loved it so much – I was supposed to be writing essays, but I just stayed in bed til it was finished. It’s even better than Hill House (though not as scary – that hand in the bedroom, argh!) so you’ve got a treat in store!

  14. Oh dear you have left me with a dilemma as this sounds such an interesting book but I don’t know if I dare read it! If I was 18 again I would have no qualms about it and just go for it. But it is a bit like Pandora’s box – do I open it or not….

    1. Jacqui, I am the most easily scared woman ever, and trust me, you’ll be just fine. It is a brilliant book and as long as you don’t read it alone in a dark house you’ll be fine!

  15. I liked the book for the most part, but I have to say I found many of her characters to be a little wooden. Specifically Eleanor and Theodora, I thought they really didn’t seem to have much energy to them, and their dialogue to be a little trite. They reminded me of Lucy and Mina from Dracula. Seemingly brainless little girls that just run around making sure they look cute, and fawn over their husbands to be.

    1. That’s interesting, Andrew, and I can definitely see what you mean. I think that’s her writing style – I found the characters interestingly childish, but their odd mannerisms were, in my opinion anyway, supposed to reflect their childish and impressionable states of mind. I’m sorry the book wasn’t as much of a success for you as it was for me!

  16. I love Shirley Jackson–you may already have read her story, The Lottery, but also well worth adding to your list. I see you’re reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle now–I’ve never quite decided which book I like more.

    1. Yes Danielle, on your recommendation, I read The Lottery and that’s what made me want to read her books! I just finished We Have Always Lived in the Castle and I have been left astounded once again…I don’t think I could pick a favourite either. Shirley Jackson wrote brilliantly.

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