Oct 23, 2008

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

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.

Reviewed at:
A Striped Armchair
Booknotes by Lisa
Jenny's Books
So Many Books
Books for Breakfast, Drinks for Dinner
Stuck in a Book
Melody's Reading Corner

(Did I miss yours? Let me know.)

A side note: Yet one more reason to love Michael Dirda!


  1. Great review, as always. If you want to be a part of Paperback Frenzy, let me know! I'd love to have your reviews on there!


  2. I loved this book, I thought the creepiest part was when the sounds in the hallway started, when she was locked in her room...

  3. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is already on my list, and hopefully someday I'll read this one, too.

  4. I've seen the film a few times but never read the book. It seems as though I should because I always find books better than movies. Great review as usual.

  5. I have the other book on my wish list and might as well add this one to it. Great stuff, Nymeth!

  6. Did you say it's a ghost story?! ;P I love reading horrors... it has been some time since I pick up a horror so this will go to my wishlist! Thanks for the review, Nymeth!

  7. Dar - having seen both the mid-60s film and the 2000 one, I can promise you that the book is so much better than both!

    Nymeth, great review as always. I myself have to admit to being firmly in the Hill House camp over Castle, though I enjoyed both. I'm curious what makes you like Castle more than Hill House?

  8. I have been wanting to read this book since i saw the review on Eva's blog. I'm glad you liked it.

  9. The only thing that I've read by Shirley Jackson is "The Lottery" and to be honest I didn't realize she had written longer works. Sounds incredibly spooky and I'm glad you got a chance to read it since it didn't make the read-a-thon cut. And I agree that books like these are best when you don't know too much!!

  10. Nice review. This is one of my favorite books, but I have to agree that We Have Always Lived in the Castle was better.

  11. Great review! I've only seen the movie, but I bet the book is better. At least that's been my experience in most circumstances. I'm intrigued by how it incorporates supernatural elements, character studies, and themes of loss. Sounds very complex.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  12. Lee Hoover: I've been meaning to get back to you about that. This weekend I will!

    Daphne: That and the part where Eleanor is holding a hand she thinks is Theodora's in the dark...SO creepy!

    Charley, I hope you enjoy them both!

    Dar: I haven't seen any of the movie versions, but that's normally the case, yes!

    Alice: Both are excellent! I hope you think so too when you get to them.

    Melody: I think it's one of the best ghost stories I've ever read. I hope you enjoy it!

    Kate: Let me see if I can explain without spoilers... First, though the writing is excellent in both, I think I liked it a little bit better in Castle. The mixture of horror and humour was so perfect. She did that too in Hill House to an extent, but Castle worked better for me. Secondly, I'm partial to first person narrators, and Merricat was one of the best I've ever encountered! And finally, the causes of creepiness in Castle are things that get to me more...I don't mean just what was done and who did it, but how things end up, what Constance's life will inevitably be like, everything. While Hill House ends in a more...final way, and with at least some of the characters being able to go away and go on with their lives, the ending of Castle implies that the horrible situation will continue, and I felt so sorry for one of the characters in particular!

    violetcrush: Eva's review sold me completely too! I hope you enjoy it when you get to it.

    Trish: I didn't realize it either until recently. Both this and Castle are SO good. And it seems they've become more or less obscure, which is too bad.

    Shannon: Both are really great, though, aren't they? I need to get one of her short story collections next. All I've read is "The Lottery".

    Anna: It is complex, but she makes it work so well! And yes, I can't imagine the movie living up to the book...the writing is a very big part of what makes it so good.

  13. This has been on my TBR list for so long it's crazy. Every time I go to look for this book, it's never in the bookstore. But of these days, one of these days...

    Excellent review, as always!

  14. great review, this sounds like a great book!
    Its good when the writing is subtle, yet can creep you out.


  15. I am looking for a great ghost story, you have me interested, I will order this novel from my library. I have GHOST WRITER by John Harwood, still haven't read it.

    Have a wonderful week-end Ana :}

  16. Have to admit that I just had to skim the review as this is one that I want to read at some point, having really enjoyed Castle earlier this year. I haven't seen this cover to Haunting but I love it. I'm going to have to track down this version when I read it.

  17. Sounds like a great read! Wasn't this turned into a movie? I don't watch many scary movies, but it sounds familiar.

    I think books that don't reveal too much are sometimes the scariest.

  18. I really tried to not read your review, because I still hope to get to this book this year...but well, I have NO willpower when it comes to your reviews! I know I've said it before, but your reviews are truly works of art themselves. And this one was no exception...you made me want to go grab this from my pile right this minute!

  19. J.S. Peyton, I hope you manage to find a copy soon! And thank you :)

    Naida: Yes, I love that too!

    Madeleine: I dare say that ghost stories don't get better than this! Hope you manage to find it at the library.

    Carl: I LOVE the cover too! The photo is by W. Eugene Smith. I really think you'll enjoy this book. It has a similar sort of mood to The Others or The Orphanage and I know how much you love that sort of thing!

    Kim: I haven't watched them, but there are two movie versions, yes. An older one and a more recent remake.

    Debi, you truly are too nice to me! I'm really happy to hear you enjoyed my review. I tried not too give too much away because I know how important being surprised is when reading this kind of book. I hope you get to it soon, because I'd love to hear your thoughts on it!

  20. I'm so glad you liked it, Nymeth!! It is one of my favourites, as I've said, and it's so great to see another person like it too! I showed the movie to a friend once, and she asked at the end when the scary bit started! Meanwhile I was all scared and jumpy as I usually am, because this story, as you say in your review, isn't about the known, it's about the unknown....I'm like one of your commentators, the noises in the hallway - and the hand that she holds, are where I start getting scared!

  21. I read this one when I was about 16, and I remember it really creeped me out! I have reread it and enjoyed it since then, but that first time had such a strong impact. Have you seen the old movie based on this book? It's a good horror movie (but not the new one - that one's awful!) and departs from the book a bit but still conveys that same eerie feeling. Great review!

  22. Susan: I agree, it's scary from the start! The sense of foreboding is there from the very beginning. And yes, those two scenes were SO creepy.

    Darla: I haven't, but after so many recommendations I really want to!

  23. I saw the movie for this and thought it was quite creepy, and I think I read the book afterwards but I remember much about it. I know there were some plot differences. I don't remember being too impressed by it, but that was about a decade ago, and I didn't read very much back then.

  24. Hmm just one word: intriguing...


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