“To learn what we fear is to learn who we are. Horror defies our boundaries and illuminates our souls.”
The novel, not the TV series. I loved the adaptation, but it cannot – cannot, I repeat – hold a candle up to Shirley Jackson’s tale. I will die on this hill.
An irreverent way to begin a review, but here we are.
What an unassuming little treasure this novel is! Relatively short, at about 240 pages, it keeps a humble exterior for all its contents. The contents, on the other hand, have ensured its persistence in literary and informal circles decades after it was written.
About the book:
The Haunting of Hill House is difficult to pin down in terms of genre. Sure, it’s a story of a house rumored to be haunted. And a woman struggling to hold her sanity together. And a tale of how our unconscious desires and regrets can consume us. And an uncomfortable reminder that our reality may not be what we think it is. It is a study in psychological horror far more than it is a mere ghost story. But I’m drifting off the deep end.
Simply put, it’s a story of a group of four people (all presumably psychically sensitive) who gather at a house (presumably haunted) at the invitation of Dr. Montague, who is a scholar interested in psychic phenomena. The Doctor hopes that the presence of his guests would intensify the strange forces rumored to be present around the house. Our protagonist, Eleanor Vance, one of the four invitees, has recently lost her long-ailing mother who she had been nursing for years – lonely Eleanor Vance sees the invitation as a way out of her cloistered existence. She gets more than she bargains for at Hill House, however.
Why it’s so important:
Ah, yes, you say. The quintessential haunted house story. I’ve read it all before. Bumps in the night. Tappings at windows. All the tropes.
Here’s a non-spoiler spoiler for you: none of the conventional tropes are in this book. There are no flitting ghosts, or decomposing corpses chasing after hapless victims. Instead, you get to experience a very rare sense of unease as Shirley Jackson builds an atmosphere that is very normal, with the creeping yet undeniable feeling that something is very, very wrong. These are not the playful chills of campfire stories. This is a deeper, darker terror. As Stephen King writes in his book Danse Macabre, horror is “the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm”, while Terror is “when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…”
There’s a reason Stephen King crows about this book, and it’s because Shirley Jackson wrote out a damn near perfect tale of terror. The Haunting of Hill House has carved out a little nice for itself in history as one of the cornerstones of horror fiction.
Why you should read it:
If you love the creepy-upy kind of horror that makes your toes go cold, this is the novel for you. If you loved the TV show adaptation, this is the novel for you, though it’s far more subtle. If you are none of those people, I believe you may still enjoy this book for the whimsical, dreamy writing style it offers, but you may want to grab a blanket and a hot beverage. Regardless, it makes for great Halloween reading.