The Haunting of Hill House tells us the story of Eleanor and her visit to Hill House, where she has been invited to take part in the exploration of its possible haunting. Eleanor is in a bad place in a sad life as she travels to the house—she has been the caretaker for her recently deceased mother, and her remaining family is caught up with their own busy lives, and they don’t seem to care about her health or well-being. At Hill House, she meets colorful characters she never would have met otherwise. There is Dr. Montague, who wants to scientifically quantify any eerie occurrence they find, to finally connect science and the supernatural. There is Theodora, who is a free spirit who seems to have figured out a lot of things about life that continue to baffle Eleanor, but who still doesn’t have all the answers. And there’s Luke, who will inherit Hill House someday, and all the baggage the house represents—and symbolizes. The group of psychic adventurers has to work out their interpersonal dynamics with each other and with newcomers.
Jackson’s novel is a quick read of, as Dorothy Parker says in the blurb on the back, “beautifully written, quiet, cumulative shudders.” The text can be enjoyed as a breezy distraction, or there are plenty of plot points to reflect upon if the reader wishes. For example, Eleanor has been invited to the house by Dr. Montague because of a psychic experience as a child—what does it mean to have been a “special” child who grows up to be an adult that seems quite ordinary? How much can we rely on childhood memories and how do they affect us? How do we use memories to reconstruct traumatic family events?
This is one of those stories that will have you questioning what the characters believe—and will inspire you to think about what is really frightening in life. Ghosts? Loneliness? Bad architecture? Home ownership? Letting someone else do your thinking for you?
The Haunting of Hill House is a great example of the female gothic novel, where issues affecting women are explored through the themes of gothic literature. These themes include the influence of place, power dynamics, our struggle to reconcile logic with nature, and the reliability of memory, among other interesting issues.
This novel was adapted to make the 1963 movie The Haunting, which is enjoyably stylish but less nuanced than the novel. (The movie was remade in 1999 with an impressive cast and poor result.) Shirley Jackson is also the author of many other novels and stories, including “The Lottery,” which you may have had to read in school. If you already appreciate Shirley Jackson, you might enjoy this quiz: http://the-toast.net/2015/04/20/how-to-tell-if-you-are-in-a-shirley-jackson-story/