Review: The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

220px-hauntingofhillhousePublished in 1959, “The Haunting of Hill House” is considered to be one of the greatest ghost stories of the 20th century. It has a fairly standard set-up: a professor, Dr. John Montague, is moving into Hill House for a few months to study any potential supernatural occurrences. He enlists the help of three people: Eleanor Vance, Theodora, and Luke Sanderson. They are all strangers, but they get along well, and after overcoming the initial revulsion caused by the house, they quickly settle into a comfortable routine, at times even seeming like a sort of family. The doctor tells the story of Hill House and explains why he brought them here. As the days go by (or is it weeks, or months? time seems to not exist here), strange things begin to happen, and the insidious terror of Hill House begins to take hold.

This novel could be said to be a “self-aware” ghost story: Jackson is conscious of many of the tropes of genre and uses them as a way of examining the ghost story from a modern perspective. It is presumably set in the 1950s, when belief in the supernatural was low and faith in reason and science prevailed. Mrs. Montague and Arthur, two characters who arrive later in the book and who are something of a psychic duo, are comic characters: we are meant to laugh at them and their unwavering belief in ghosts and the netherworld. The other characters themselves laugh at them, even after their own experiences in Hill House. Much of the horror they feel comes from being confronted with things that they cannot explain. As Dr. Montague puts it, modern minds have “abandoned our protective armor of superstition and have no substitute defence” (against the terror of the unknown). But then he also seems to contradict himself when he says that “fear is the relinquishment of logic […] of reasonable patterns”. They are trapped between what their reason says–that there are no such thing as ghosts–and what all their senses are telling them–that this house is haunted.

There’s something odd about how the characters act, I think. They seem to get on a bit too well. There’s a hint of superficiality about their interactions, like they’re only pretending to get along. During conversations, they constantly make quips and jokes, as if they are trying to distract from some underlying tension that pervades everything. All feel the same way: something is going to happen soon. When something does happen, it is like pressure had been let off; they feel giddy with it. But it’s only a temporary respite. As the plot progresses, cracks begin to appear in the veneer of friendliness. Eleanor begins to feel more and more that she’s making a fool of herself, that Luke and Theo are talking about her behind her back and deliberately excluding her.

Much of the novel is focussed on exploring Eleanor’s state of mind and how she interacts with the others. Though it is told in 3rd person, the narration frequently switches to a 1st person view of her thoughts: in order to draw us into her mind to see and feel as she does. As increasingly terrifying supernatural things occur, and Eleanor’s behaviour becomes more and more erratic, we are left wondering just how many of the events actually happened and how many are just figments of her overworked mind. Since all we know of what happened is filtered through Eleanor, we cannot separate the objective series of events from her subjective experience. On top of this, we don’t know if her behaviour was caused by spirits or some form of madness. There may not have been any ghosts at all in the house. (The actions of the other characters contradict this, but it is interesting to consider.) What is certain is that there was some element of the imaginary involved. As Jackson herself says: “No live organism can exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream”.

Recommended for those who enjoy: ghost stories, slow-building/atmospheric horror, hallucinatory happenings, dark humour.