The Haunting of Hill House

Read:  2018

Author:  Shirley Jackson

Published:  1959

Genre:  Horror

Pages:  208 (paperback)

Selected By:  Elle Tea

Elle Tea’s Score: Scoring Loved Book

“Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within.

“Four seekers have arrived at the rambling old pile known as Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of psychic phenomena; Theodora, his lovely and lighthearted assistant; Luke, the adventurous future inheritor of the estate; and Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman with a dark past.  As they begin to cope with chilling, even horrifying occurrences beyond their control or understanding, they cannot possibly know what lies ahead.  For Hill House is gathering its powers – and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.”

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Elle Tea’s Review

‘Tis the season for all things scary, creepy, and eerie, and since Hollywood has done zombies to death, the CW has ruined vampires for me for quite possibly the rest of my life, and I can’t watch werewolves at the moment because I’m bitter about orders being closed for WerePups, I’m going into full-on ghost mode this year.

I originally read Jackson’s classic horror story when I was fifteen, my interest piqued after I saw the 1963 adaptation on one of the classic movie channels during the Halloween season.  To this day, that movie stands apart for me; it’s not visually explosive, no fancy digital effects or even any color, and the acting is par for the course for the time – a little over-the-top, a little melodramatic, a little overly-expressive.  But it still manages, with subtle tricks of lighting, scenes loaded with escalating emotions, and wild shifts from claustrophobia to agoraphobia, to creep me the hell out.  In short, it’s the only adaptation to date that is completely faithful to its source.

Shiver by shiver, we gain insight.

To even try to describe Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece of modern horror is to do it a terrible injustice.  How do you describe Hill House – Jackson’s Hill House – to someone who’s only ever seen that ridiculous 1999 film, burdened as it was by actors whose names were big at the time and its tendency to use digital graphics to spoon feed eeriness to audiences, thereby undoing what made its sources so frightening to begin with?  How do you tell someone who’s only ever seen Netflix’s recent release that it is the same but different, that it captures the uncertainty and confusion and creepiness so well for so many episodes only to lose its nerve at the very end?  (Incidentally, I really did enjoy the Netflix adaptation and think it’s probably one of the best releases they’ve produced – I loved the slow build and dark uncertainty of the first nine episodes, but suddenly in the tenth episode they managed to rip out the teeth and claws of Hill House and turn it into something like a bed-and-breakfast for ghosts, which… is… ridiculous and a pitiful way to end an otherwise powerful show.)

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.

After completing that disappointing final episode, I figured it was time to drag out my copy of Jackson’s original tale and rock this Halloween season the way it deserves to be celebrated.  It’s been twenty-five years since I’ve stepped foot back in Hill House, and it was everything I remembered and more.

“Sometimes the people who knock you down never turn once to look.”

The story is well-known enough by today’s horror standards: Dr. Montague, a man fascinated by the supernatural and paranormal, rents a dilapidated old mansion with a history of family tragedies with the intention of holding a brief study to prove, once and for all, that his theories about psychic phenomena and the paranormal are true; to this effect, he has invited a number of people, of whom only a handful respond and only two young women are deemed worthy: the fiercely independent but cynical Theodora, who may possess some minor empathic or psychic abilities, and Eleanor, a nervous, timid, fragile creature who spent most of her life caring for her ailing mother only to be, at the death of her charge, reduced to a childlike state of complete dependence in her sister’s family’s home.  And finally, rounding out Hill House’s guests, is Luke, the grandson of the current owner and, therefore, the legal heir of Hill House.  Thrown into this hodgepodge are Mr. Dudley, the groundskeeper, Mrs. Dudley, the housekeeper who lingers always in the peripheral – but only during the day (never at night… in the dark 🙂 ), Dr. Montague’s wife who fancies herself a bit of an amateur spirit medium, and Mrs. Montague’s highly opinionated assistant, Arthur.

“… insist on your cup of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone else, you will never see your cup of stars again…”

Where Jackson’s Hill House gets horror so right is in what she doesn’t tell us.  She gives the reader a tidbit, a small nudge in the direction she wants you to go… and then sits back and lets you build up the rest in your mind.  A single ghost never floats across the page, no bodies are tortured beyond recognition, no mutilated apparitions drop by their necks from Hill House’s rafters.

“Daughter, preserve thyself.”

Instead, the reader is forced to take the journey to and through Hill House with the least reliable and most emotionally and mentally unstable character of the group, Eleanor.  Poor misused, invisible Eleanor, with the memories of her family’s demands and callousness fresh in her mind, with the guilt of her mother’s death still clinging to her heart.  She feels the cold emptiness of that great dark house envelope her from the beginning, and it’s all downhill for her from there: thumping on the walls, banging on the doors, knobs jiggling as they’re tested by an unknown entity in the dead of night, disembodied voices singing and giggling in the halls and across the grounds, messages written in huge letters across vacant hallways.  Other characters reinforce the existence of these occurrences, adding a touch of credibility to what might otherwise be written off as instability on Eleanor’s part: Theo cringes in terror as she and Eleanor hide behind a locked door from a spectral assailant who seems hellbent on smashing his or her way into the room; Montague and Luke both rush after what they believe to be a large dog, though no animals are on the premises; Theo screams and flees in fear from a vision she never describes but which Eleanor assumes is identical to her own view of a ghostly family picnic…

Each was so bent upon her own despair that escape into darkness was vital, and, containing themselves in that tight, vulnerable, impossible cloak which is fury, they stamped along together, each achingly aware of the other, each determined to be the last to speak.

And here’s where things get interesting.  We know these things happen because logical Theo, rational Montague, and pragmatic Luke see them, too.  But they have doubts… and thus, so does the reader.  Hill House, it seems, is fixated on poor, lonely, desperate, unstable Eleanor.  But this isn’t her first haunting, because, as she mentions briefly fairly early into her tale, she was once the object of a poltergeist’s obsession.  And as she comes unraveled under the pressure of Hill House’s unseen occupants, as they appear to become more and more attached to her, more ready and hungry to possess her, to make her one of their own, to bring her at last to a place that is her own, her home, the lines between what are happening and what we think might be happening become blurry.  Hill House might be a hungry beast of a house that consumes the lives and souls of its occupants… or it might just be a dilapidated old mansion whose original owners lived out tragic and unfortunate lives, and its current ghosts are nothing but the manifestations of one young woman’s mental illness brought to life by an innate telekinetic ability.

I am home, she thought, and stopped in wonder at the thought.  I am home, I am home.

Hill House as Jackson wrote it has no happy ending.  How could it, with so troubled, so tragic a protagonist?  But it does leave you wondering, had the perspective been different, had we followed Theo rather than Eleanor, what sort of story would this have been?  Was Hill House even haunted before Eleanor got there?  If it was, did Eleanor join the Crains or the companion, or was Jackson being literal when she alluded to each spirit being alone in their eternity?  If Hill House was just a big empty old house before our story, is it haunted now by the ghost of a woman whose life was so lonely, so tragically pointless, and is she happy there at last, with her picnics in the garden and her games in the halls?  Or was it all for nothing, is Hill House just a house, just a shell, a stage for people to act out their lives, the same as it was in the end as it was in the beginning?

The house – Hill House – is whatever you think it is.  Good or bad, ghosts or madness… it’s all up to you.

Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.  Within, its 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.

The Haunting of Hill House is a short, quick read and one which I highly recommend.  After reading it, I suggest you take a look at the Robert Wise / Nelson Gidding 1963 adaptation, which brings Eleanor, Theo, Luke, Dr. Montague, and Hill House to life as I think Jackson would have imagined them.  And once you’ve stopped watching your mantelpiece out of the corner of your eye and jumping every time someone knocks on your door, go check out Netflix’s 2018 adaptation, which dusts off the old house on the hill and gives it some razzle-dazzle modern flair without diminishing entirely what Jackson intended… just be warned that it ends in a way that completely undoes all of the anxiety established by the first nine episodes.

Elle Tea read the Penguin Classics edition of this selection.

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