It was a dark and stormy night…really it is. It’s thundering out right now and pouring rain–again. At least it waited until I got home from work on my bicycle. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson has no stormy nights in it. There is dark though. And a mysterious icy cold spot in front of the nursery door along with something that goes bump in the night.
The book is deliciously creepy. Dr. Montague is an anthropologist interested in psychic phenomena and out to prove once and for all to his colleagues that it is real. He searches for an appropriately haunted house to rent for the summer. He negotiates a stay at Hill House. As part of the agreement Dr. Montague is made to accept one of the family, Luke, staying at the place for the summer. Luke is the family troublemaker–a thief–and they think that by sending him there he will be out of the way for a little while.
Also coming to stay at the house are Theodora and Eleanor. The Doctor decided he needed assistants for his summer project and trolled the psychic journals. He sent out numerous letters of invitation and Theo and Eleanor are the only ones who agreed to come. Theo has some psychic mind reading abilities. As for Eleanor, when she was a child stones rained down on her house for three days. When she and her sister were removed from the house, the stones stopped falling. It was never clear who caused the psychic event, but one suspects it was very likely Eleanor.
No one lives at Hill House when the group arrives. There is a housekeeper and a groundskeeper–Mr. and Mrs. Dudley–themselves perfect for a haunted house story. They live in the village six miles away and will only go to the house during the day. Mrs. Dudley is sure to tell the four of them that and adds that she will not hear them scream at night.
The story is told mainly from Eleanor’s point of view. Eleanor is 32. She has been caring for her ailing mother for a very long time. Her mother died just three months prior to Eleanor’s arrival at Hill House. Since her mother’s death she has been living with her sister and brother-in-law. She is treated like a child and has to “steal” the car that she half paid for in order to get to Hill House. It is clear from the start, as we follow Eleanor on her drive to the house, that she has an active imagination and fantasy life.
Hill House itself is big and ugly and menacing. As Jackson describes it in the opening paragraph of the book, the house is not sane. None of the angles of the house are the proper angles one would expect. A square room is a few degrees shy of square. The floors are not perfectly flat. The stairs have a slight sideways tilt to them. Even if the house were not haunted it is an uncomfortable place to be.
But the house is haunted and has an appropriate haunted house back story. To go along with the haunted house, however, is a delightful array of psychological instability and ambiguity. Eventually it becomes impossible to know what horror belongs to Hill House and what to the minds of the temporary inhabitants.
I am a horror wimp and could only read the book during the day, mostly on my lunch breaks. It reads fast and towards the end I didn’t want to put it down. For the first half of the book I had an eerie “I’ve read this before” feeling. But I have not read the book before nor have I seen any of the movies made from it. I finally put my finger on the fact that it has some similarities to the Stephen King miniseries Rose Red that was on a couple of years ago. The two stories end up being very different, but as my Bookman said, Shirley Jackson and Stephen King swim in the same imagination pool and stories are bound to resonate. In fact, my copy of the book has an erudite introduction by King. Don’t let this deter you though. I enjoyed the book immensely and recommend it to anyone looking for a shiver down their spine.