The reading of horror novels can be a contradictory act in itself. While there is that eerie allure, beckoning us forward, there is also a natural repulsion and underlying dread that makes us want to avoid them altogether. Having spent my childhood appreciating the thrills of stories such as The Canterville Ghost and any other spooky thing I could get my hands on, and then – during my teenage years – reading Stephen King and uber-scary novels such as The Exorcist, before backtracking to the classics of Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James, there came a time when I had “horror-fatigue”. It was with those feelings in mind that I approached Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
The Haunting of Hill House – written by Jackson in 1959 to much literary and popular acclaim – is one of those seminal works admired by contemporary horror writers as one of the most influential horror novels, featuring year after year on many of the “best horrors of all times” lists. While not a horror writer as such, Jackson was known for her realistic settings involving elements of terror and the occult, and her ability to depict a gripping portrayal of “psychological” horror.
The premise of the narrative sounds like the archetypal setting of a gothic ghost story: an old, abandoned house with a mysterious history of things going bump in the night; a curious Dr Montague, who wants to become famous for the “scientific” recording of the nocturnal activities; two young women, Eleanore and Theodora, who have been invited to stay in the house because of their possible “psychic abilities”; and Luke, a young, handsome bachelor and future heir to Hill House. Four individuals, pledged to stay in the isolated, rambling Hill House for the whole summer to document any “unnatural occurrences.”
But The Haunting of Hill House is no ordinary ghost story, with a predictable story line and an occasional thrill. Instead, from beginning to the end the novel exudes a fundamental dread, and a journey into psychological disorder that is way more chilling than any overt horror scenes could ever be. Most of the novel is seen through the eyes of Eleanore – a young woman who was chosen by Dr Montague to come to Hill House because of a childhood event in which “stones rained on her house” for about a week, and which she had almost managed to forget as an adult. Eleanore has spent her entire adult life as carer for her recently deceased mother, and so the invitation to come to Hill House is Eleanore’s first ever real adventure, and her first ever opportunity to live out the internal, romantic life that she has created for herself. When Eleanore meets the other characters – in particular the fashionable and independent Theodora – her life seems to make sense for the first time, and she feels she belongs to and is accepted by the group. That is, until the house starts weaving its sinister influence on her and the others, and the question arises as to whether the real horror is the unexplainable manifestations, or the dark recesses of Eleanore’s mind.
One of the things about The Haunting of Hill House is that it seems timeless. Although written over fifty years ago, it still feels contemporary and realistic. There are larger questions at work in this novel than whether ghosts exists, or whether houses themselves can be inherently evil – the author uses Eleanore’s character to explore how our self-perception can be essentially unreliable and shifting, just as Hill House is constantly shifting and built purposefully to evade comprehension. The book is a wonderful example of a writing style that is sparse and unembellished, while at the same time being richly evocative and adaptable to a reader’s interpretation of the characters and the events.
I can see why this book continues to be on the “best ever horror” lists, and why it has been remade into a movie a couple of times. To me, this is the best kind of horror: insidious, quietly terrifying and claustrophobic. The reader, just like the characters, cannot escape the influence – supernatural or otherwise – of the house, where “silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”