Thursday, 6 August 2015

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson Review

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Dr John Montague wants to prove the existence of the supernatural. He sends letters to people who’ve had psychic experiences and invites them to join him in the remote Hill House, a supposedly-haunted place that he’s rented for the summer. Two people reply: Eleanor Vance, a shy, innocent young woman who has been nursing her invalid mother for many years; and Theodora, a hippy-ish psychic. Rounding out their small group is Luke Sanderson, a relative of the homeowner.

The many different ways you can interpret Shirley Jackson’s novel is a large part of why it’s often described as the greatest haunted house story ever written. The story is a puzzle because of Jackson’s creative choices. There is an unintrusive narrator but most of the book is told from the perspective of Eleanor, the emotionally-damaged main character and an unreliable narrator, leaving the interpretation of the story up to the reader. 

Jackson mentions why Montague considered Eleanor in a snippet at the start: an incident in Eleanor’s childhood where rocks pelted her house. Was it a poltergeist? Does Eleanor possess telekinetic powers, causing the rock shower? And then there’s the connotation of Eleanor (or perhaps her mother) being a witch – witches used to be stoned to death.

Once the supernatural goings-on begin in Hill House, Jackson invites the reader to question what’s happening: is the house really haunted – are there really ghosts? Or is it Eleanor causing all of it, led on by believing she’s in a haunted house and her latent psychic abilities are sub-consciously bringing the fantasy to life? Or is none of it happening and it’s all going on in Eleanor’s rapidly disintegrating mind?

Like Eleanor, the reader is impressed upon that this is a traditional haunted house story. It’s in the well-defined gothic style of an old house full of scared women and wailing ghosties. Some of Jackson’s writing plays upon readers’ expectations like in that opening paragraph at the top of the review, and the title itself screams stereotypical horror. 

But look at the title – “haunting” can mean poignant or evocative. It can also mean the action of haunting a place – not necessarily by a ghost. Is it misdirection, given that we never see a ghost – are the characters themselves “haunting” Hill House with their presence, creating the horror within? Is the reader complicit in this creation, bringing our own ideas of what this book is before we’ve read it? It’s Jackson subverting, while also reworking, the haunted house story with one of psychological terror. 

Where does the horror of this novel come from? Discounting things that go bump in the night, the real horrors in the book are everyday concerns. Like looking for your place in the world – what if you don’t find it? For the first time in years Eleanor is free to do what she wants – but she defined herself by being the nurse to her ailing mother. Take that away and she’s left with nothing – and she’s scared because she doesn’t know what to do next. Themes of loneliness and a lack of love abound (the phrase “Journeys end in lovers meeting” is disturbingly repeated throughout). Is it fear about losing our individuality to the crowd or losing control of our conscious selves (Eleanor “joining” Hill House, losing herself to it as well as “something” seemingly taking her over towards the end)?

Jackson’s horror isn’t like the 19th century monsters from Frankenstein and Dracula, nor the 20th century monsters like the Nazis. Her horror is your own self. You are your own nightmare, in the way Eleanor could be said to be her own worst enemy (also 6 years after this book was published, Jackson would commit suicide). 

But it’s not just the malleable way you can read this novel that makes it fascinating to think about, it’s Jackson’s high-quality writing. She’s able to switch from dramatic horror to domestic realism to surrealism effortlessly. Surprisingly, given the genre it’s pertaining to belong to, the novel is mostly written in a flat realistic style, focusing on unexciting things like the group making fun of their dour caretakers, Mr and Mrs Dudley, to having lunch, going for walks, and playing games.

I think a lot of the complaints about this novel being dull stem from this approach. Modern readers are expecting a more bombastic story than the one Jackson’s willing to give. But her style builds atmosphere and tension – albeit slowly – and by being restrained in her prose, Jackson’s story is more effective, more powerful once something does happen. It’s a terrific tale of terror because right from the start when we meet Eleanor, there’s this sense of dread hanging over her which Jackson exploits expertly, ratcheting up the anxiety throughout to create suspense. This novel is an excellent example of terror and why terror is superior to horror. 

This restrained approach is also why Jackson refuses to show anything the reader’s expecting like ghosts. In one scene, Theo and Eleanor are rushing back to the house – Theo looks behind her and screams. Run, Eleanor, she says, and the two run back to Hill House. The reader’s never told what Theo saw – and isn’t that more scary than being told “Theo saw a ghost”?

But I can definitely empathise with readers who felt the story to be a bit too subdued as I felt my attention wandering a few times too. It’s a character-driven story and the characters don’t do much. “Bo-ring!” was my impression the first time I read it years ago which is why I wanted to re-read it now – maybe I’d become a more mature reader? Slightly - I can appreciate the artistry behind this book a lot more - though I still found Hill House an easy book to put down, but was always glad I kept picking it up.

The Haunting of Hill House is definitely a brilliant book and is rightly considered one of the cornerstones of modern horror, influencing writers like Stephen King and Sarah Waters. It is very slow-going at times though and, while I’m recommending the book, go in expecting a leisurely pace than a white-knuckle thrill ride and you’ll get more out of it. And it is genuinely creepy - I made a point of only reading this at night as Shirley Jackson is one of those few horror writers who can get under my skin and scare me like I was a kid again!

The Haunting of Hill House, not sane, stood by itself on the shelf. It had stood so for 56 years and will definitely stand for 56 more. Within, pages continued upright, met the spine neatly, and the covers were firm, and whoever reads it, read it alone…

The Haunting of Hill House

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