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!