The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House is the greatest haunted house novel of the 20thcentury. You can make a case for Stephen King’s The Shining, of course, but Shirley Jackson’s book came first. Another contender is Burnt Offerings, by Robert Marasco, which shares The Haunting of Hill House’s nasty sense of humor but isn’t read much anymore. I’ll get into Richard Matheson’s Hell House in another post, but suffice it to say that I’d take The Amityville Horror over Hell House any day of the week.

I read the Penguin version of The Haunting of Hill House. I also read the introduction, wherein Eleanor (the book’s protagonist) is referred to as odd. The author of this introduction misses the point. Eleanor is a parody of a gothic heroine, a cloistered young woman who has spent her entire adult life caring for her ailing mother. Unlike a gothic heroine, Eleanor is realistic. She possesses rudimentary social skills and an active fantasy life, which she’s developed as a self-defense mechanism in order to cope with her awful life.

I am not being sarcastic here. I sympathized with Eleanor, who has lost years of her life caring for an unpleasant old woman. Ms. Jackson’s portrait of the family unit is refreshingly unsentimental, but not in an overt way. Too many writers tend to hammer that sort of thing home with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, whereas the damage Eleanor’s mother has done to her daughter is psychological and thus permanent. There are echoes of Eleanor’s mother throughout this book, which is jam-packed with unpleasant people, from Eleanor’s sister to the woman who says she’ll pray for Eleanor to the Dudleys to – you get the idea. The Haunting of Hill Houseis full of petty, mean people.

What struck me on this reread is that The Haunting of Hill House is a parody of a gothic novel, right down to the walled-in nun and the sturdy tower piercing the sky. Except it isn’t really a gothic novel. A gothic heroine would be rescued by a handsome suitor, but the only suitor Eleanor has is Hill House. What makes this book so sad is that in the end Hill House is the only thing on earth that does want Eleanor.

The Haunting of Hill House’s middle drags a little, but the ending – which is inevitable – delivers. The book drags in places because Eleanor doesn’t have a desire line, as such, but her stakes are high. She’s spent her entire adult life caring for her mother and she wants a life for herself. Luke is a parody of a gothic hero. He and Theodora are having an affair, which explains why Theodora stays. What do you think Mrs. Dudley and Mrs. Montague are referring to when they’re talking in the kitchen? By the way, Mrs. Montague’s approach to the occult is a lot more sensible than her husband’s. I will note that Mrs. Montague goes to the trouble of calling Eleanor’s sister. She also suggests that Arthur drive Eleanor home two or three times, an act of kindness that Eleanor’s companions – who only want to get rid of her – lack. After all, they all have their lives to go back to. Of course, if one believes in Hell, they’ll be in trouble…

Unlike Mr. Matheson, Ms. Jackson resists the urge to explain her ghosts. She understands that the power of ghosts lies in the fact that you can’t explain them. Anyway, I’ve read this book before and after rereading it I still like it. I thought it might be fun to keep a running tally of how many of the books I liked vs. what I didn’t like this semester. So here it is!


4 Replies to “The Haunting of Hill House”

  1. Hi George,

    Great review of The Haunting of Hill House. I agree completely with the fact that book dragged in many areas, especially where Eleanor was concerned. Unfortunately, her charactization was the thing that annoyed the heck out of me throughout the story. I kept having to remind myself that she was not a child even though she acted as one in my opinion. The echos of Eleanor’s mother, the horrid woman she was, is a prominent theme through all Shirley Jackson’s books. These echo the struggles that Jackson herself had with her own mother. Have you read the biography? Shirley Jackson; A Rather haunted life by Ruth Franklin. It is very good, but long. The story of her life goes into her terrible relationship with her husband, the awful things that her mother did to her constantly, and the sadness and loneliness the woman suffered throughout her life. It too—dragged—in many parts and I wished we spend less time learning about her husband but it was important to understanding much of Jackson’s life, and as such, her work. Unfortunately, the more I read Jackson’s stories, even though they are fantastically written, the more I think I enjoyed the biography.

    1. Hi Jeannie,

      Totally agree that Eleanor acted like a kid. She certainly has a child’s fantasy life. I wish I’d thought of that!

      I have not read the biography yet. I’ll have to give it a try. The introduction to the Penguin version of The Haunting of Hill House gave a few details about Ms. Jackson’s life, which seemed horribly depressing. Her husband sounded like a real piece of work, to put it mildly.

      1. Definitely do check out the biography! It’s wonderful. I found it a pretty speedy read, save for the opening chapter about her grandparents, though the author’s deep dive into the haunting architecture that surrounded her childhood was fascinating!

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