Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is a usual suspect on my to-read list. It climbs up so close to the top every year when fall creeps in only to get bumped down by newer novels. I put it off so long reading it began to seem like a chore, which is silly but you know what I mean.
At last this crazy orange cover with black velvet caught my eye and before I even saw the title I wanted to read the story inside. This edition came with an intro by Guillermo Del Toro, sending expectations soaring. As a physical object, this one feels really good to hold. It’s a little narrower than most books and the pages have black edges that put you in the mood for a scary story.
It’s unfair to pick up a book with such high hopes, but anticipation is part of the fun. Sometimes it’s even better than the actual experience.
Montague is a professor of anthropology, but he’s also an expert in the occult spending much of his career secretly searching for a truly haunted house. He discovers Hill House and arranges to live there for the summer under the guise of doing a sleep study. His intention is to scientifically investigate and document actual paranormal activity. To do so he needs subjects to interact with the house. In the days before Google, one way to find the right subjects was to scour old newspapers for people linked to unexplained events. He winds up with the company of two women and a man who will one day inherit the house.
The house is cast as our monster. It was built by a wealthy, questionable man mad with grief over the loss of his wife. Its history is dubious, but the question at hand is: Is it haunted?
None of the angles are correct or what you’d expect them to be. Doors refuse to stay open. It could be the crooked floors, or maybe the will of the house. Is it possible architecture can affect a weak psyche? Why not. The mind is a powerful thing. An unstable mind nudged off the edge quickly turns. You watch the rapid unraveling of a character who no longer trusts her mind and falls into a state of utter chaos. Though others are around to witness her strange experiences, when they refuse to come to the same conclusions you feel like you’re going mad with her.
I found the characters to be annoyingly predictable. One is a sexy free spirit, another a manic neurotic who needed to snap already. My favorite parts are the descriptions of the house and how these very different characters perceive it. The end was a whopping disappointment, but I had fun reading it. I wish this were a random, obscure book I found on a shelf because I think I would’ve enjoyed it more without this is a classic? on repeat in my head.
Shirley Jackson is an excellent, restrained writer. Her dialogue reveals much about the dynamics between these strangers, but far from everything you want to know. The story does what it does well. A few moments lingered, some observations got under my skin and left me thinking about how and why we create our own terrors.
The best horrors go deeper than a few chills that make you nervous to turn off the lights. They reveal a truth about human nature, or take our expectations and use them against us. They’re entertaining and fun, and like any good books, leave you with something new to chew on. This one is good and crunchy despite the ending.
After finishing it we watched the 1999 movie based on the book, The Haunting. It’s a big budget mess. There’s a 1963 film by the same name that I haven’t seen yet. Expectations are low so I’ll probably love it if I ever get around to watching it.