“Am I walking toward something I should be running away from?”
First published in 1959, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson tells the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a haunting; Theodora, the lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena, but Hill House is gathering its powers and soon, it will choose one of them to make its own.
A huge fan of the Netflix series that was inspired by this book, I thought I’d take my first step into horror fiction and give Jackson’s genre-defining classic a go.
Often classed as one of the best horror books of all time, Jackson is a brilliant storyteller. Her characters are well-crafted and the descriptions of Hill House set up the eerie atmosphere brilliantly. Written in 1959, there is some old humour and the dialogue often feels out-dated, but the characters are still engaging for many different reasons.
But whilst the immaculate details of the house itself are unforgettable, the scares aren’t all that often. It’s more about the mood and the setting than any spine-trembling events, and because it’s not until the closing chapters that we begin to understand what’s going on, the story doesn’t grip you as I thought it would. We know that the house has affected Eleanor more than the others, but with so much of it going on in her head that we aren’t able to see or read in detail, I don’t feel like the tension is built up enough in the house.
However, the final chapter definitely gives you something more out of the slow build-up of the story as it concludes the bigger contexts in a thought-provoking and clever way. I was just hoping to be more scared and to be left too afraid to switch my bedside lamp off after putting the book down, but it’s more of a psychological journey than a ghost story. With the fear being more mental than physical, it’s no wonder that this story has been adapted so often as you certainly need the visuals to have a more lasting effect.
Whilst this book will always be discussed for its elements of horror, there is definitely an underlying theme of repressed female sexuality going on, especially with Eleanor facing the same fate as the elder Crain sister’s companion. It would certainly be an interesting book to study in this regard as everything is left so ambiguous, but that’s why books like this are so successful because their open-ended narratives open up so many discussions about what may or may not have been intended. Jackson has always responded that it is about feeling closed in and repressed in all ways, not just sexuality, but I think that in itself is a brilliant concept to delve into more deeply.
There’s definitely a lot more going on than the story at hand, which is why The Haunting of Hill House is deemed a classic. It’s not often that you can learn more about a book after you’ve finished reading it, but there’s so much about this story that Jackson loosely touches upon – themes of depression, isolation, loneliness and mental instability – that enables its readers to interpret the underlying characteristics in their own personal ways.
I guess it’s that concept that the Netflix series puts its focus on, as the TV series only hints at elements of Jackson’s story whilst using the infamous haunted house as its premise.
If you’re a fan of the series, then it’s definitely worth reading this book to see where the intricate story stemmed from. You can read my TV review for the series here and watch the trailer for it below: