When two reading challenges align to tell you to read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House then it is advisable to jump at the chance! I read We Have Always Lived At the Castle earlier in the year and loved it, so when the Estella Society announced their Hill House Readalong and it corresponded nicely with RIP IX, then I knew it was a sign!
And it didn’t disappoint. The Haunting of Hill House is a taut and creepy master class in how to write a ‘ghost story’ that is as much about the demons of a haunted house as it is about the demons inside our own heads. Like all good ghost stories, Hill House offers some spine-tingling chills, but what the book really exudes is a lingering, oppressive sense of dread.
The premise of the book is straightforward enough. Dr Montague, an anthropologist, rents the allegedly cursed Hill House in order to investigate the existence of psychic disturbances. Joining him in his investigation are the house’s heir, Luke, and two women with previous experience of the paranormal, Theodora and Eleanor. The group bond quickly, amusing themselves with laughing at Mr and Mrs Dudley, the caretaker and housekeeper who provide some much needed comic relief even while making ominous pronouncements about not being able to hear their screams in the night. Almost immediately the group start to experience phenomena – writing on walls; noises in the night; doors slamming shut by themselves and on the basis of sheer scares, The Haunting of Hill House is an effective read. There are some genuinely shiver inducing moments often made all the more frightening by the details that are left up to our own imagination. Jackson is excellent at knowing what to tell and what to leave a mystery and the ‘hauntings’ are often relayed solely through the characters reactions to them.
There is a prevailing sense of claustrophobia, both physical and psychological. The house is surrounded by hills which bear down on it, rooms are contained within rooms and the labyrinthine layout of the house denies its inhabitants a sense of bearings or place. Comfort can be found at Hill House (soft beds, good food) but it a suffocating comfort.
We are told the story from the viewpoint of Eleanor, a genuinely complex character rather than simply a device to push forward the narrative. Eleanor’s mother has recently died and she sees this trip to Hill House as a last chance to gain some freedom and independence from her overbearing sister. Eleanor is a dreamer, prone to fantasies and embellishments, each providing her with a cushion against the reality of her drab life. She steals her sister’s car to make the journey to Hill House, and on her liberating road trip she imagines different lives, different possibilities, even a magical palace guarded by oleander trees where she pictures,
I will walk up low stone steps past stone lions guarding and into a courtyard where a fountain plays and the queen waits, weeping for the princess to return
She sees her arrival at Hill House as a liberation, an emancipation from the family who have held her back. It is her escape from her life, but not in the way she anticipates. Eleanor becomes trapped in the embrace of Hill House, as it infiltrates her mind and invades her sanity. What happens at Hill House will force her to face the fact that she will never be free of her past and her family and that the talismans that she clings to, like the cup of stars, will not protect her from the thoughts within her own mind. She can’t escape herself and that is the real horror of the book. She will find no queen weeping for her lost daughter; she will only find herself again and again.
There is a suggestion that it is the house itself that draws Eleanor towards it and that what happens there is the product and expression of her inner turmoil. Dr Montague refers to a childhood experience of Eleanor’s where stones rained on her home for three days as a poltergeist and it could seem like the disturbances are that poltergeist wrecking havoc once more. The house singles her out, writes her name on walls and isolates her from the rest of the group, as she has always been isolated. She begins to see the worst in her housemates just as the house presents itself as her only salvation. The reader begins to wonder how much of what is happening is in Eleanor’s head and how much the others are experiencing. Even Eleanor questions it during one particular happening she thinks
I will never be able to sleep again with all this noise coming from inside my head; how can these others hear the noise when it is coming from inside my head? I am disappearing inch by inch into this house, I am going apart a little bit at a time because all this noise is breaking me; why are the others frightened?
There is a slow, residual breaking down of Eleanor’s defences and although there are some very chilling set pieces, the real chill comes from watching Eleanor break down and surrender to the experiences, to give herself over to the house itself,
No: it is over for me. It is too much, she thought, I will relinquish my possession of this self of mine, abdicate, give over willingly what I have never wanted at all; whatever it wants of me it can have.
The opening lines of the novel state that
No living organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream
But Eleanor’s dreams are no defence against the absolute reality of Hill House. It reinforces that she is an outsider, destined never to belong and it offers itself as sanctuary. By the end of the book, Eleanor has, in some bizarre and horrifying way, come home.
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