I don’t know what’s more embarrassing: that it took me until 2015 to read Shirley Jackson’s 1959 classic The Haunting of Hill House or that it took me until 2015 for me to read my first Shirley Jackson story 1. Or that I actually saw the movie adaptation of this novel before I read the book. At least it was the 1963 movie—the good one—and not the trainwreck from a few years ago.
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. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, 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.
But now Hill House is going to have guests.
For Doctor John Montague, Hill House offers a chance to find scientific proof of the supernatural. Luke Sanderson, whose aunt owns Hill House, joins Montague to keep an eye on the family property (and I suspect because he is the most expendable of his aunt’s relatives). Eleanor Vance and Theodora (no last name) are the only two (suspected) psychics to accept Montague’s invitation to participate. Wildly bohemian Theodora accepts for reasons that are unclear although they may just boil down to “it sounds like fun.” Timid Eleanor accepts because the expedition offers escape from her terribly constrained world; until very recently she had spent her life tending to her hated mother.
Hill House exudes the very essence of “bad place”; built subtly out of square, the building exerts a malign, disorienting influence on those foolish enough to stay there. Nor is the House willing to settle for subtle effects; the longer the group stays in Hill House, the more overt the disquieting events, the more insidious the House’s probes of their individual weaknesses.
For vulnerable Eleanor, Hill House may be mad, bad, and dangerous to know but her experiences there are the most liberating, joyful feelings she has ever known. How could she bear to leave the first place where she seemed welcome?
I meant for this to be one of the books I reviewed in the week before Halloween, but by the time I made that decision, other people had already signed it out. Oh, well.
Back when I was reviewing that old Canadian radio show of weird horror, Nightfall2, I was a bit surprised at how consistently small towns and rural locations were treated as inherently terrible, awful places; I assume this is because Nightfall’s producers were from Toronto. It’s a shame that as far as I know Nightfall never adapted The Haunting of Hill House , because the malevolent house near the doomed, wretched town would have fit right into their repertoire.
I know that this deservedly popular novel influenced Stephen King; it must have influenced others. The architectural premise, that deviations from the square made the subtle wrongness of the building, reminded me of Dean Motter’s 1980s comic series Mr. X. I wonder if the malevolent psychotecture of Radiant City is Hill House writ large
I saw the 1963 film adaptation of the novel with a group of UW students just this last September. Much of the audience was strongly (and loudly) in favour of the burgeoning romance between Eleanor and Theodora. The film had to be to somewhat indirect in its depiction of lesbian romance; the Hays code was doomed but by no means dead in 1963. The book is somewhat less subtle than the film, as this bit of internal dialogue from Eleanor demonstrates:
I could help her in her shop, Eleanor thought; she loves beautiful things and I would go with her to find them. We could go anywhere we pleased, to the edge of the world if we liked, and come back when we wanted to. (…) and she is laughing because I am not going to be lonely any more. (…) I was right to come because journeys end in lovers meeting.”
If the book ended there, that could even be a happy ending. Unfortunately it does not stop there, Theodora is kind of a jerk and the House isn’t slow to exploit the opportunities it sees
This short work is rightly considered a classic. Readers more familiar with horror genres likes splatterpunk may be surprised that the novel depends very little on explicit graphic violence and far more on suggestion and implication. It’s not even clear if there really is an entity inhabiting the House or if Eleanor is simply slowly going mad on her own.
1: I at first thought that I must have read Jackson’s short story “The Lottery,” but I looking at its ISFDB entry, I don’t see any anthology or collection containing it that I might have read. There was a radio adaptation by Ernest Kinoy, but while I have listened to much of Kinoy’s work—he wrote for X Minus One —this particular example was for NBC Presents: Short Story, to which I have never listened. Perhaps I know about this story by cultural osmosis, the same way that I can tell you about Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town without ever having read it.
2: No relation to the Asimov story.