As part of the 2016 Reading Challenge, I read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (so now you know how old, at least in general, I am), a very unusual kind of haunted house book in that there are no ghosts to speak of, but the house itself is deeply disturbing.
The premise of the book is simple enough, and any aficionado of horror movies will recognize it: there is a house that’s supposed to be haunted, and four individuals are spending time in the house, investigating whether it is or isn’t haunted. The leader of the group is a doctor, and he invites the nonresident owner of the house, Luke, and two young women, Theodora and Eleanor, chosen because of their psychic sensitivities. The whole book is told through Eleanor’s perspective, and you have to admire the skill with which Jackson keeps us inside Eleanor’s head as the house begins to assert itself and begins, in fact, to show a creepy interest in Eleanor in particular, though she’s had no previous connection with the house.
Eleanor has her issues, though they are not the sort of issues you’d see in a protagonist in a modern horror story. She’s kind of mousy and repressed, and up until this trip she really hasn’t gone far from the house in which she grew up, the house in which she lived, until very recently, with her dying mother. She is not a reliable narrator, and that’s part of the fun of the book, trying to figure out how much of what she sees and experiences is really there and how much is the product of her own warped way of looking at the world.
Something is definitely wrong with Hill House, and it’s not all just Eleanor’s perceptions. The house is built just slightly off, so doors do not stay open no matter what you do, and the design of the rooms in the house is deliberately confusing: things you should be able to see out of one window are invisible, rooms open up into other rooms when they should communicate with the outside world, and even maps of the house don’t help people find their way around.
One of the real charms of the book is the way Jackson suggests horrors without describing them in detail. There’s a scene at night where Theodora and Eleanor are together in their room and there are terrible noises coming from outside the door, as if someone or something were trying to get in. The noises are so vividly described you feel as if you’re there with the women, and yet you never actually find out what caused the noises. Likewise, there’s a scene later in the book with a picnic which Eleanor and Theodora witness; the details are not described, so all you see is the way the women react to it, and in some ways that’s scarier than if you actually saw who or what was at that picnic.
The Haunting of Hill House is an old-fashioned book, and you wouldn’t mistake it for a book written in 2016, and yet if you let yourself fall under its spell, it definitely packs a punch of its own. If you’re doing the Reading Challenge, this book was made into a movie, The Haunting (which we have available for borrowing at the library), and it’s an interesting example of how a movie can be different from a book and still faithful to its spirit.