Dr. Montague, an occult scholar, has rented out Hill House for the summer, with the hope of recording scientific evidence for real ‘hauntings’. To aid him in his experiment, he has invited three guests to stay in the house - Eleanor, Theodora and Luke - who have had previous experience with supernatural phenomena. Despite appearances, The Haunting of Hill House is not simply a bog-standard ghost story; it is a psychological tale of unnerving terror, documenting the fragile mind of an unstable young woman.
The characters featured in Hill House are fantastic; I found the protagonist Eleanor to be the most interesting. She is neurotic and paranoid, and due to her lonely life her mental state is frail. She is a friendless recluse; having spent the last few years caring for her terminally ill mother, she has lost contact with the social world. Theodora, an artist, is the second guest to arrive at Hill House: she is shallow, flamboyant and chatty, with a poisonous, mean side to her. Luke - the heir to the house - is the final guest.
My favourite aspect of this novel is how beautifully written it is. The opening paragraph is thought to be the greatest opening paragraph in horror literature. I have to agree: it sets a tone of dread and foreboding perfectly and with ease:
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill house, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for 80 years and might for 80 more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
Jackson’s writing is spell-binding, and she effortlessly conjures a spectacularly spooky atmosphere:
[Eleanor’s thoughts upon first seeing Hill House:] “She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseased, get away from here at once.”
“No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice.”
“This is where they want me to sleep, Eleanor thought incredulously; what nightmares are waiting, shadowed, in those high corners - what breath of mindless fear will drift across my mouth...”
In conclusion, The Haunting of Hill House is an incredibly creepy and brilliant read. It is the most atmospheric and mesmerising novel I have ever read; it is not an inherently scary book but the feelings of unease and dread Jackson creates are astounding. If you’re looking for gore, or for something that will seriously scare the pants off you then Hill House is probably not what you’re looking for. Nonetheless, for those who seek a novel with beautiful writing, an atmosphere of subtle and exquisite creepiness, a horror tale with a strong psychological aspect, complex characters, a powerful ending, and a gradual build up of foreboding and fear then Hill House is the ideal novel.
My other Shirley Jackson reviews: