Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

I read this novel as part of the R.I.P. (Readers Imbibing Peril) event, and also as part of the Estella Society readalong taking place all during September.

The only Shirley Jackson I have read before, to my knowledge, is the famous story "The Lottery."  A classic, to be sure.  The Haunting of Hill House is supposed to be a classic as well, but it left me a little cold.  And not in the good, scary story way.

Here's the setup, in case you are unfamiliar with this book: Dr. John Montague is an anthropologist who has taken an extreme interest in supernatural dealings, especially haunted houses.  Hill House comes to his attention as a suitably haunted house for him to study and eventually write a masterful treatise about.  But he needs assistants to help him explore and understand the house.  He chooses two assistants, Eleanor Vance and Theodora, by their demonstrated links to the paranormal.  (As a child, Eleanor lived in a house that experienced a rain of stones for days, and Theodora has demonstrated remarkable ESP in experiments conducted in Dr. Montague's lab.)  The third assistant, Luke Sanderson, is a nephew to the owner of Hill House, and thus an heir.  His presence is the only condition upon which Dr. Montague will be allowed to make his observations of the supposedly haunted house.

Thus the stage is set for what seems to be a typical ghost-hunting story.  And the first part of the book is essentially that.  It's creepy, and a little suspenseful, and I enjoyed that part of the book very much.  Hill House is indeed haunted, and a really creepy and weird place to boot, but it's not haunted in the way that I expected.   This story turns out to be more about psychological terror, and the effect the house has on Eleanor in particular, and it was that part of the story that I had trouble relating to.  It just wasn't that scary, and I was even a little confused by the storyline from time to time.  Many of the supernatural events in the book are only hinted at obliquely.  For example, in one scene Eleanor thinks she is holding Theodora's hand in the dark, to keep from being scared.  Suddenly she realizes that it might not be Theodora's hand, and she doesn't really know whose it is, since no one else is supposed to be in the room with them.  And.......... that's all we get of that.  Creepy, yes.  Scary, no -- because there's just not that much there.

I sort of kept waiting for things to happen like that all through the book.  Scary, creepy things do happen eventually, and some of them are kind of surprising.  Overall, however, I thought the story as a whole was unsatisfying.  Too much is left unsaid, or ambiguous, and that's not the kind of scary story I want.

This book just was not my cup of tea.  It's not a long book, so it can be read pretty quickly -- I finished it in just a couple of days.  There are many people (including masters such as Stephen King) who regard this as one of the best horror novels ever written, and I don't have any reason to doubt their judgment.  The book is short enough that I would be willing to reread it someday and give it a second chance.  But for now, my verdict is.... eh.

If you've read it, and liked it, and maybe understood it better than I did, please talk about it in the comments!


  1. The Lottery is the only Shirley Jackson I have ever read and it's been a long time since then. I knew she had written other things, but have never seemed to get around to reading any of them. The fact that Stephen King gives it high praise is probably something, but I find his short stories hit and miss.

    1. True... but it always makes me feel weird when everyone else likes something and I don't. It makes me wonder, am I missing something?? :-)