The Haunting of Hill House
Shirley Jackson | Popular Library | 1959 | 174 pages
Shirley Jackson’s monumental haunted house tale sets the standard for the genre, while delivering a poignant character study of a lonely and dispossessed woman searching for a place to call her own.
“HELP ELEANOR COME HOME”
Paranormal investigator Dr. John Montague assembles a small team to stay inside Hill House, a blighted mansion with a history of misfortunes, and record any instances of the supernatural. Joining him is Luke Sanderson, heir to the estate, Theodora, a young woman with exceptional psychic abilities, and Eleanor Vance, a longtime caregiver to her recently deceased mother.
Freed from the demands of her ailing mother and the pressures of a shared living space with her overbearing sister, Eleanor is the sole member of Dr. Montague’s team to actually embrace the prospect of living at Hill House. Eleanor Initially bonds with Theodora, perhaps the sister she always wanted, but their relationship is ultimately strained by Eleanor’s growing emotional neediness, and the increasing undercurrent of jealousy over Luke’s attention.
Then the nocturnal noises begin.
Although the history of Hill House is detailed, the nature of the haunting remains ambiguous. Rather than particular specters, the manifestations here are limited to an inexplicable cold spot, and a series of explosive poundings and door bangings that methodically travels down the hallways at night. The most deliciously creepy scene, involving holding hands in the dark, subtly underplays its shock, delivering a chill-inducing moment more effective in its absence than a more explicit depiction of horror.
Amid growing tensions with Theodora, Eleanor is further singled out of the group when a mysterious message is found scrawled on the wall, referring to her by name. The late arrival of Dr. Montague’s wife throws even more turmoil into the group dynamic of the house. Mrs. Montague serves as the vulgar counterpoint to Dr. Montague’s more thoughtful, if ineffectual, approach to the paranormal. With her planchette in hand, she quickly spins out an embellished and factually-challenged tale of nuns being sealed alive in the walls of the house.
Regardless of her proclivity toward showmanship and arguable charlatanism, Mrs. Montague does seem to sense the special importance Eleanor holds to Hill House, and touches on her eventual fate. Her pronouncement that contacted spirits “love to repeat themselves” during sessions eerily evokes an early scene with Eleanor. Defending her intent to drive to Hill House over the objections of her sister, Eleanor’s repeated protests (“It’s half my car…. It’s half my car…. It’s half my car….”), foreshadow the pattern of a failed communications from the spirit world.
Eleanor occupies the focal point and and serves as the catalyst of the haunting at Hill House. Existing as something of a ghost in her regular life, she is particularly vulnerable to the supernatural forces at play. Hill House never explicitly reveals the details of its malevolent entity, but this determined ambiguity helps vault its haunted house to a more universal level, and painfully exposes the personal failings of its intrepid research team.
Much more an evocative, character-driven mood piece than a straight-out shocker, The Haunting of Hill House remains required reading for well-seasoned horror fans, and genre newcomers seeking a quintessential ghost story.