The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)
I have had about a week to think over my response to The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. One thing that has crystallized in my mind is that apparently, I don’t like saying that I don’t like a book. It’s hard not to erase that sentence because I realize how ridiculous it sounds, and I’m always saying to my students that it’s okay for them to not like some of the books we are reading as long as they can articulate why they don’t like the book. Now that I find myself in that position, I’m reminded of how challenging that task can actually be.
The story is set at Hill House, a large manor house that has the characteristics of a castle and is repeatedly characterized as being sentient, endowed with human traits, and seemingly possessed of its own volition and power. Where I think Jackson excels is the creation of a gothic-style atmosphere into which she plants her four main characters: Dr. John Montague, an anthropologist looking for proof of the supernatural so that he can gain respect and vindication from his peers in the academy; Luke Sanderson, son of the current owners of Hill House and heir to the property; Theodora, a free-spirited, witty art-type who accepts Montague’s invitation to stay at Hill House for the summer as a kind of lark; and Eleanor, a young woman who has been the primary caregiver for her ailing mother for the last twelve years, and who now is on her own and trying to experience the world and find a place to belong. Like the house, Eleanor has been isolated from the society of others, and like the house, Eleanor is trying to connect with others. This is another thing that I think Jackson does well—capturing Eleanor’s need for new experiences, acceptance from others, and a place to call home. Although Hill House’s first impression is not welcoming, the four rely upon bantering with each other, playing games, and exploring the house to cope with the sense of evil and “wrongness” that seems to pervade the house. Eventually, unexplained phenomena begin to occur, and with each page it is Eleanor who becomes more and more isolated from the group and seemingly the focus of Hill House’s negative influence.
A while back, I read and reviewed Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. I had considered teaching that novel instead of The Haunting of Hill House, but now that I have read both, I think it may have been better to teach Hill’s novel. It just has a more interesting plot and better use of gothic horror conventions to invoke terror. Maybe I am jaded, but I didn’t find anything especially chilling or terrifying about The Haunting of Hill House, and perhaps this is one reason why I didn’t like the book—it didn’t meet my expectations. I was expecting to feel ill at ease while reading at the very least, but I never did. The novel is told through Eleanor’s point of view, but this is a problem because as readers we begin to question Eleanor’s sanity. What this meant for me as a reader is that the novel is much more of a psychological study of Eleanor than a chilling, terrifying gothic horror novel. The other thing that I didn’t like and that was done better in Hill’s novel is the pacing—I felt like it took a long time for story and the plot of The Haunting of Hill House to get off the ground. I know why Jackson did this from a narrative perspective—we the readers are waiting for something to happen, just like the characters in the novel are waiting for something to happen. I get it, but it still detracted from my overall satisfaction with the story. The other thing that I didn’t like was that a lot of the ambiguities that Jackson weaves into her story to heighten the suspense are never fully resolved at the end of the story. On the one hand, I understand why Jackson does this too—it’s a way of creating tension in the novel and also because she doesn’t want to tell her readers what to think. She wants them to come to their own conclusions. On the other hand, there were several things that were confusing and not clear to me as a reader. Perhaps that just means that I was reading closely enough or that the story demands a second reading, but the ultimate result is that it was an additional obstacle to my enjoyment of the story. In that vein, I might call it a bit modernist in the way that it uses ambiguity and refuses to resolve the ambiguity at the end of the story. I think Hill’s use of ambiguity and the way she creates tension in the novel is much more effective and creates a better reading experience. The final thing about the novel that I didn’t like was that I had a hard time getting invested in Eleanor as a character or the plot of the novel in general. By the time I got to the end of the story I was just glad to be at the end of the story. One of the things I want out of a good read is to care about how it ends, and I didn’t really care about how The Haunting of Hill House ended; thus the conclusion was less than satisfying.
My final analysis is that I am glad that I read the novel so that I can have my own opinion about it, but I can’t say that I would recommend it to other readers. It’s a disappointment, too, because I chose this book to teach over Hill’s book, and my thinking now is that I made the wrong selection. What I will take away is more awareness of what I want from a gothic horror novel.