HRLB: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

‘Journeys end in lovers meeting…’

In the spirit of the holiday, my Halloween Reading List Bonanza continues. I have to say that I am slightly behind with the whole shebang but for reasons beyond my control (i.e. earning money to live-very important) and other such things, I’ve not been able to really dedicate a huge amount of time to it. But being the dedicated horror fan I am, I’ve persevered the best I can and I recently finished the fantastic The Haunting of Hill House by one of my favourite authors, the inimitable Shirley Jackson

Eleanor Vance, our protagonist, is a woman who has spent the best years of her life looking after her terminally ill mother. Having been made a virtual recluse by the whole experience, and severely underappreciated by her sister and her husband, Eleanor accepts an invitation to join an experiment from one Dr Montague who happens to be looking for evidence of the supernatural. Having rented the mysterious Hill House (built by the equally mysterious Hugh Crain) for the summer, the good doctor seeks to investigate this phenomenon by inviting people deemed to have prior experience with ghostly goings-on to spend time in Hill House and document their observations. Joining Eleanor are Theodora, an artist who may or may not be a lesbian, and Luke Sanderson, heir to the Hill House legacy.

Hill House itself is a place with a dark history of violent deaths and suicide. The estate is managed by Mr and Mrs Dudley, two curmudgeons who absolutely refuse to stay in the house after dark and are firmly stuck in their somewhat comic ways and routines; loving and hating Hill House in equal measure.

The narrative is told through the eyes of Eleanor Vance, an emotionally damaged woman who desperately seeks to escape the prison of her former life as virtual slave for her invalid and demanding mother, and equally expectant family. She dreams of a life where she is free from these responsibilities and in some regards, lacks the social skills that her more erudite companions easily demonstrate. Eleanor is paranoid; desperately aware of her supposed inadequacies (for example, not having nice clothes like Theodora) and acting ‘appropriately’ in front of all gathered.

The group soon begins to experience paranormal activity; what sounds like spirits roaming the halls at night, bangs and howls, and writing daubed on the wall. Eleanor herself is particularly susceptible to this activity and tends to experience events that the others do not; including holding an unknown person’s hand in bed, thinking it is Theodora as they eventually take to sharing a room after Theodora’s wardrobe full of clothes is damaged by what looks like red paint.

It becomes evident throughout the novel that Eleanor could be responsible for some of the activity the group experiences. Is Eleanor losing her grip with reality or is what she’s experiencing real? Whatever way you look at it, Eleanor is slowly becoming possessed (or obsessed) with Hill House, whether that be as a result of her gradual psychological breakdown or for reasons more insidious.

The Haunting of Hill House is a chilling novel and like many of Shirley Jackson’s short stories, the protagonists of her work tend to be women with questionable degrees of what could be mental illness, or, as it could realistically be in Eleanor’s case, extreme demonstrations of independence from lives of drudgery and demoralisation.

Ultimately, Eleanor does not want to leave Hill House, though it is practically demanded of her after she finds herself (and puts others) in an extremely dangerous predicament. Rather than give up her freedom (and the intoxicating influence of the house), Eleanor drives her car into a tree and commits suicide. Is this as a result of supernatural elements, or just the desperate actions of an extremely depressed and hypersensitive woman?

As I have said many, many times (sorry…) on the blog, these elements make for unsettling horror/ghost stories. We all fear losing our sanity and The Haunting of Hill House represents how easy that could be, with the right formula, and certain socialisation experiences.

Anyway, I love it and I think you should seriously consider giving it a read.

I also loved Jackson’s collection of short stories ‘The Tooth’ and I heartily recommend that as well. I read ‘The Tooth’ at a time when I was experiencing severe toothache of my own and ‘her tooth, which has brought her here unerringly, seemed now to be the only part of her to have any identity…she was only its unwilling vehicle…’ resonated with me in a way so clearly it’s like I was Clara, walking around my life in a pain-soaked haze. Bit melodramatic of course, but toothache sucks. And can, in the case of ‘The Tooth’, drive you a bit…mad.

I digress!

Naturally, there have been a couple of film adaptations of the book; 1963’s ‘The Haunting’ and 1999’s ‘The Haunting’…suffice to say, one was excellent, and the other (guess which…) was fairly hokey…though I must say that the house itself was suitably creepy and Catherine Zeta Jones was fairly obnoxious as Theodora, which I felt was a relatively accurate representation of the character in Jackson’s novel.

Here are the trailers…

The Haunting 1963

The Haunting 1999

 

Happy reading, folks.

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