Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and it might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neat floors, 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, a scholar interested in the supernatural, rents Hill House for three months so that he may study the psychic phenomena that reportedly take place there. He compiles a list of people who have had previous encounters with the supernatural and invites them to join him as his assistants. Only two, Eleanor Vance and Theodora, show up at Hill House. Together with Dr. Montague himself Luke Sanderson, the future heir of the house, they begin to observe the strange manifestations that take place in the house.
These are just the bare bones of the plot, but I won’t say more, because the less you know the better. I will just add one thing: the reader experiences events from Eleanor’s perspective. Eleanor is a thirty-two year old woman who spent most of her life looking after her ailing mother, and her thoughts and emotions are an essential part of the story.
Shirley Jackson is an absolutely brilliant writer. Just to get it out of the way, I’ll say that I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as We have Always Lived in the Castle, but I loved it all the same. The supernatural elements in The Haunting of Hill House are subtle and vague, and I think that’s a big part of the reason why they work so well. We never quite know what’s happening at Hill House, but eventually that ceases to be the point of the story. It’s more about how the characters, Eleanor in particular, experience things, and also about the bonds and alliances they form.
But by this I don’t mean that the story ever ceases to be deeply unsettling, because it doesn’t. The atmosphere couldn’t have been more perfect. There’s something so disturbing about the way Mrs Dudley, the housekeeper, repeats “In the night. In the dark”. And the rigid routines of the house, and the claustrophobic ambience, and the way everything is subtly but undeniably disorienting. There’s a very strong sense of wrongness that permeates the whole story, and Shirley Jackson builds it up with perfection.
The Haunting of Hill House is a ghost story in which events can have several different interpretations, not all of which are necessarily supernatural. For me, this makes it more disturbing and effective than it would be if things were clearer. And like We Have Always Lived in the Castle, this is also an immensely sad story – a story about loneliness and loss and a desperate wish to belong.
A Striped Armchair
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A side note: Yet one more reason to love Michael Dirda!