“The Haunting of Hill House” (1959)

Dr. John Montague was a doctor of philosophy; he had taken his degree in anthropology, feeling obscurely that in this field he might come closest to his true vocation, the analysis of supernatural manifestations. He was scrupulous about the use of his title because, his investigations being so utterly unscientific, he hoped to borrow an air of respectability, even scholarly authority, from his education. [1].

Yes. Just, yes.

This passage is from the first page. Right out of the gate, we know we have a winner. I love everything about this passage, from its assertion that supernatural phenomena are best studied from the vantage of anthropology, to its roundabout concern with the “scientific.” Not only that, but Montague’s reasons for studying anthropology sound surprisingly familiar to me personally, as a folklorist who studies the supernatural, and I think it’s awesome.

Listen to me. Gushing.

But I can’t help it. The first word that comes to mind when I think of Shirley Jackson’s brilliant haunted house novel is delicious. It is a comforting, slightly spicy dessert–like, homemade carrot cake and a cup of good tea on a cold day. It is wonderful. If anyone doubts that horror can be subtle, profound–as well as oddly humane, warm, and inviting–I’ll bet The Haunting of Hill House will change their mind.

As long as they can tell it apart from all those other things, anyway.

The book centers on a group of four people who come to spend a week in Hill House, a rambling old mansion in the unpleasantly-rustic countryside (more on that in a moment). The fearless leader is one Dr. John Montague, who in the strangest example of participant observation ever undertaken by an ethnographer, rounds up his little group and whisks them away to the eponymous domicile in order, essentially, to see if he can’t get a bunch of damned freaky stuff to happen.

Though Montague contacts a large group of potential informants, only two actually show up (hurray ethnography!). These are Eleanor, the protagonist, and Theodora, the coquettish-but-probably-lesbian foil to Eleanor’s frumpy, crazy cat lady. Montague duly explains that he chose these women on the basis of their past experiences with psychic phenomena: Eleanor endured a poltergeist event as a child, and Theodora apparently enjoys some degree of clairvoyance. They are joined as well by Luke, the heir of the Sanderson family, the current owners of the derelict mansion. Together the four of them embark on a week of luxury and dissipation: brandy, chess, strolls on the lawn, relentless ghost  attacks. Pretty par for the course.

But I jest. The Haunting of Hill House is not par for the course. Its scares aren’t cheap. They aren’t accompanied by jarring, discordant imagery, by abrupt violence, by twisted sexuality, or any of the other sets of symbols that are attendant on so much contemporary horror. Hill House relies on the contrast between normalcy and moments of intense, creeping weirdness. These moments are familiar in content: the bizarre cold spot in front of the nursery; the sound of banging moving up and down the upstairs hall while Eleanor and Theodora can only listen, approaching hysteria; the cryptic and frightening writing that appears on walls and seems deliberately timed to drive the characters apart when their only safety is one another. But they are executed with such finesse, with such attention to detail, and with such meticulously crazy narration (it’s all told from Eleanor’s perspective) that the scares leave behind the dull terminology of other works in the horror genre. They are “scares” no longer. They are intrusions, disruptions, challenges to the cozy little atmosphere, the nest that the characters have made for themselves–and by extension, they are intrusions into the normal social world in which we all must exist.

But that’s enough for symbolism and social commentary. The frightening moments in Hill House are by now old hat to anyone who’s ever seen a horror film or read a horror novel; but Jackson’s sparkling prose makes any trace of triteness evaporate. I’ve never heard a recording of her voice, but I’d be willing to bet that Shirley Jackson spoke exactly like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s: that strangely almost-British accent that stylish Americans affected mid-century. That’s the voice I imagine, anyway, when I read her descriptions of scenery, or Eleanor’s running commentary on the shortcomings of her new friends. “Droll” is the word, but with all the nuances that the term should convey but perhaps does not.

How droll. Indeed.

Jackson is also incredibly skilled at creating a compelling sense of place. Hill House, despite its bizarre architecture (described in beautifully Lovecraftian terms) and threatening supernatural phenomena, becomes a kind of homely counterpoint to the ugly little town of Hillsdale, six miles distant, through which Eleanor passes on her way to the mansion. In some ways, the world immediately outside Hill House is worse, more callous and impersonal, than the house itself.

I’ve been a huge fan of the film version, 1963’s The Haunting, since I watched it with Carlea several years ago. Much of the charm of the novel carries over into the film; but what the film does not convey quite as effectively is the quiet but deep insanity of the protagonist, Eleanor. She isn’t a psychopath, but her inner monologue reveals how fundamentally flawed her understanding of reality–specifically, social reality–is. The supernatural events in the novel–if that’s what they are–serve, more than anything, as a kind of literary dancing-partner with Eleanor’s growing insanity. There may be a ghost, or Hill House itself may be somehow sentient, or Eleanor could be causing the supernatural events herself (the other characters experience them as well, so not everything is in Eleanor’s head); but, for once, the ambiguity doesn’t matter. Or rather, it does matter; but it isn’t a smug, self-aware kind of ambiguity. The symbolism is not heavy handed; Jackson doesn’t delight in the open-endedness of the story.

No, I think Jackson mourned for Eleanor. The Haunting of Hill House is an elegy for the character that Jackson created to represent, I think, a kind of quiet, intimate tragedy. Eleanor, thirty-two years old, spent the last eleven years caring for her ailing mother, and as a result she is utterly unable to relate to other human beings. She opts instead for a house, and for the spirits that inhabit it. That’s what’s really scary here: the spooky manifestations, the implied threat (no one is ever killed, but there is an undeniable menace to the phenomena that occur), are bad enough; but this woman, ultimately, prefers them, and what they represent, to living human beings.

Hill House has its flaws. Toward the end of the book, the four main characters are joined by Montague’s wife and her assistant Arthur. Mrs. Montague and Arthur are, simply put, annoying. I understand why the filmmakers opted to change Mrs. Montague’s role so drastically, and drop Arthur completely, from the ’63 movie version.

Minor shortcomings aside, The Haunting of Hill House is brilliant. Whether it’s truly horror or not is, like so many such things, open to interpretation. But it is one of the best ghost stories I’ve ever read.

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[1] Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. Revised. New York; London: Penguin Classics, 2006.
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9 thoughts on ““The Haunting of Hill House” (1959)

  1. I only read this halfway though because that’s when I decided I’m putting this book on my “to read” list (and I was afraid you’d ruin the ending). You are a fantastic writer, by the way, “It is a comforting, slightly spicy dessert–like, homemade carrot cake …” and funny as well “hurray ethnography!” Who knew you were more than interesting hats?!

  2. Oh, how I love this book – your review captures its appeal perfectly! I saw the film years ago (and have reviewed it repeatedly). I only found the book relatively recently but it was an absolute chilling joy to read. I’ve always preferred the Victorian/Edwardian masters of the ghost story but Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House is a modern true gem!

    • Yeah, Jackson was a genius. I also only recently discovered her, thanks to a friend’s recommendations.

      I have very little experience with true Gothic literature, but what I’ve read I really, really like–definitely have to read more.

  3. Anne Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho is fantastic, lots of lush descriptions of landscape, beautiful heroine in perilous situations, plenty of horror and apparently supernatural events. I Love it. Jane Austen even parodied it in Northanger Abbey – whats not to like! And for another satirical version of the Gothic Novel try Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock.

    • Wicked, I’ll have to check them both out. Thanks!

      I love the Gothic obsession with place as a source of fear. That’s about the best thing ever.

      Have you read “The Little Stranger”? I reviewed that on here a while back. Very good!

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