The Short Version: Four visitors arrive at a foreboding house in the country, intending to explore the rumors of the supernatural on the premises. But the house brings more than they bargained for and drives them right to the brink of sanity… or maybe even further…
The Review: Recently, I’ve read some interesting pieces about the difference between terror and horror and I realize that I like terror more – and find terror all the more frightening. Essentially, terror is the anticipation, the mounting dread, whereas horror is the revulsion after the fact. And what’s scarier than the not-knowing? The question of what’s coming around the corner, the inability to determine what might be real. It’s terror that makes you afraid of the dark…
…and it’s terror that Shirley Jackson achieves so effortlessly, in so much of her work. Many years ago, I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle – my first introduction to Jackson actually, having somehow missed “The Lottery” in school – and found it one of the most enjoyably creepy novels I’ve ever read. Her short stories, which I’ve read here and there (and plan to tackle more purposefully with the recently-released Let Me Tell You), are creepy too – but I don’t think anything else of hers matches the frights of The Haunting of Hill House. I was riveted to this novel and genuinely freaked out by it, despite being rather distanced from the immediate circumstances – and there’s a reason why it’s retained its spot on nearly every list of the best scary books of all time.
Interestingly, it does read like a product of its time. It feels like a novel of the late 1950s – not so much in its politics (although more on that in a moment) as in its tone and the atmosphere Jackson creates. Think of The Twilight Zone, for example, and those images of ordinary Americans pulled into unsettling new realities and that’s what Jackson is doing here. You can almost hear Bernard Hermann’s score from Psycho as Eleanor drives towards Hill House, despite her positive atmosphere on the surface; there’s something off and we know it.
The brilliant question, though, is that of what, exactly, is off? The house is physically off, of course – the opening paragraphs and the mid-novel descriptions of exactly how the house is off are some of the best architectural writing ever put to the page as well as some of the spookiest – but does that mean it’s haunted? Does death on the premises automatically mean that a house has gained a malevolent (or at the very least a creepy) edge?
Jackson plays with her readers as only the most talented writers can, leaving these questions unresolved for as long as possible – and the end is not only truly startling but, in the purposeful echo of the opening lines, downright chilling. The supernatural is not horrific here, with perhaps the exception of a scene of blood spattered across a room, but it is truly terrifying in an unrelenting way.
Why so scary? Perhaps because of the characters. Eleanor, the main character, is a tremendous audience surrogate and a master-class in unreliability; we spend so much time with her and she seems so ordinary that, when things start to warp, we’re left with the feeling that we too might be unreliable. Most of the rest of the cast is somewhat stock, although they’re all warmly rendered and quite memorable – the drawing room banter that they engage in, even during moments of extreme tension, shows Jackson’s often overlooked (at least as compared to her skill with plot and mood) wit. But it is Theodora who is the most fascinating of the bunch – for reasons somewhat unrelated to the novel and more related to the politics of the world.
Because it’s quite clear that Theodora is a lesbian. There are absolutely 50s/60s clichés (her “friend” waiting at home, for example) but, as other reviewers have pointed out, it’s one of the first times in popular culture that a lesbian character isn’t demented or evil or crazy. Granted, she’s never explicitly described as a lesbian and Jackson seems to throw in hints of flirtation between her and Luke – but the realities are clear to 21st Century readers and I was fascinated to see Jackson delivering such nuance, all the more so because I know what the world was like / how it has changed from then to now. Her relationship with Eleanor is so complex and I’m curious to know more about how readers reacted in 1959. Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (soon to be an undoubtedly award-winning film called Carol with Cate Blanchett & Rooney Mara) had come out seven or so years earlier (albeit under a pseudonym and dealing with the topic much more directly)… so I wonder. I could do some research, I suppose.
Anyway, I’ll close on a side note: I took a class on Alfred Hitchcock and his films in college, while I was studying abroad. It seemed at the time (and, arguably, still) like a frivolous course, just for fun, but I find that it radically altered the way I perceive horror and thrillers. The German expressionism that loomed large in Hitch’s framing would’ve suited an adaptation of Hill House quite well… and I do wonder why he never took a crack at it. The Haunting (the original, not the 1999 remake) is admittedly a terrifying film – but I wonder what Hitch would’ve done with it.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. Spooky-scary stuff – and what else do you expect? Jackson is operating at her very best here, delivering a constantly shifting psychological thrill while also establishing Hill House as one of the absolute best haunted houses of all time. So many things about this book have been taken and reused over the intervening years… but nobody does it better than Jackson. I was hooked and also on the edge of my seat from the very start, with those instantly memorable lines. And if you’re a writer or creator of any kind, do yourself a favor, even if you don’t like scary books, and read this: it’s a master-class in atmosphere.