Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House [[Spoilers]]
Hi everyone! I've been back in New York City since Monday night, and 'enjoying' the WONDERFUL weather we've been having (yep, I may have missed that terrible hurricane but I made it just in time for yesterday's snowstorm). Anyway, I'll write more about that in my next IceBlock post, but for now I want to finally give you guys a book review!
The book is Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, a book I actually considered reading last year when I was under a haunted house kick, but never got around to. While in California, I decided to pick it up for when I was taking it easy in the hotel, and appropriately picked up a copy on the 30th of October, just in time for Halloween.
This book was first published in 1959, and the copy I have is published by Penguin. In a nutshell, this story follows three characters - Eleanor, Theodora, and Luke - as they pitch fort in the notoriously haunted Hill House under the guidance of a fourth character, Dr. Montague, who is attempting to find evidence of paranormal activity in the house.
The house is at the outskirts of the town of Hillsdale and the only temporary inhabitants of it are Mr. and Mrs. Dudley, the housekeepers.
To me, Dr. Montague is an almost fatherly figure that exists as the reason the other three characters are at Hill House.
Luke isn't anything special to me: he is the heir of Hill House and a source of 'romance,' if you will, during the story. He is your typical humorous, lighthearted young guy.
Theodora is a somewhat more independent character. She does not let the chills of the house get to her, at least not as much as Eleanor.
Eleanor is the central character of the story. Though narration is in the third-person, it seems to be limited to Eleanor's perspective. At first I found Eleanor to be one of those annoying, 'hopeless romantics' kind of characters. However, as the house begins to interact more with her, she turns out to be a much more layered, complex - and, in turn, interesting - character.
I may as well include Hill House as a character as well, because at times the strange hauntings are credited to the house and not to potential ghosts in it. Hill House is a house designed by a man named Hugh Crain with every corner being a few degrees smaller or larger than expected. The results are strange illusions in the house, crooked steps, and the potential alteration of equilibrium in its inhabitants.
MY REACTION [[SPOILERS]]
At first this book wasn't too special to me. It was interesting and I kept wanting to read to see what would happen, but it wasn't something that stood out as being pretty damn great. Not until the end, that is.
Something I loved about this book is that even though the history of Hill House somewhat suggests that the strange noises and movements in the house may be the result of ghosts, there is enough evidence in the structure of the house that makes the house itself sickening and frightening, to me at least.
I will admit, however, that the history does add to the frightening aspect of the house. For example, Dr. Montague explains that Hugh Crain had two daughters that fought over inheriting the house. That was a detail that intrigued me and gave me the chills: these two girls that grew up in the unnerving house did not try to escape it, but rather were unusually attracted to it. Because of that, the cold spot in front of the nursery - their nursery - gave me the chills even more.
What made me really fall in love with this book was the change in Eleanor's character. She starts off as a frightened woman that's seeking a life for herself. She's tormented by her mother's death - though this is a mere detail in the beginning - and gives into her fears right from the second she arrives at Hill House. She is attracted to Theodora since Theodora does have a life for herself back and home and does her best to ignore her fear.
As such, Eleanor is a weak character, and perhaps because of that she becomes the best candidate for Hill House. I mentioned earlier that the narration is third person, though limited to Eleanor's thoughts for the most part. I think that Jackson used this kind of narration to her complete advantage. What better way to make a terrifying house truly terrifying to the reader than by presenting the experience at this house through an unreliable, soon-to-be insane character?
Events occur in the house that begin to shed light on the core of Eleanor's past: that her mother not only died, but died because Eleanor did not wake up to her call. As her mother's caretaker, Eleanor was responsible for giving her medicines and whatnot, but the one time she did not hear her mother's calls during her sleep, her mother ended up dying. This partial responsibility haunts Eleanor and comes to life in Hill House, where the message for Eleanor to 'come home' is channeled in a variety of ways.
The result is that Eleanor begins to crack. And I love how Jackson portrays this insanity: Eleanor begins to stray away from the other characters and spy on them, to a certain extent. At the same time, things don't seem to 'click' about the other characters anymore. The best example of this occurs when Eleanor spies on Mrs. Dudley, a character who, up to this point, seems limited in speech, speaking few sentences and repeating herself everyday without fail. When Eleanor is spying on her, however, Mrs. Dudley is suddenly having a fluent, human conversation. On top of that, Eleanor never shares this moment with any of the other characters, which makes the reader have to wonder how true the entire moment with Mrs. Dudley actually is.
In addition to spying on other characters, Eleanor begins to acquire acute hearing of everything going on both in the house and within the vicinity of the house. Again, though, she does not share this ability with anyone and, because we are limited to her perspective, it is impossible to know how real these sounds are.
By the story's end, Eleanor crosses the boundary between sanity and insanity. She runs through the house, not afraid of being heard (since there are always strange noises in the house anyway), and she calls out to her mother and Hugh Crain until the other characters find her. Dr. Montague insists that Eleanor go home the following day, since she is no longer mentally stable enough to remain at Hill House. She rejects his offer but he soon demands that she go home, and refuses to hear otherwise. At this point the real chill of the story arrives: Eleanor decides that she will drive, but not away from Hill House. She speeds up and drives into a nearby tree on Hill House property, killing herself and therefore making it impossible for anyone to force her out of Hill House.
This suicidal end reminded me a lot of another novel I love, Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome, which also ends with a suicidal attempt that involves crashing into a tree (though the attempt here fails). The insanity Eleanor is swallowed by and her reaction to it with suicide is the kind of psychological change in a character that really fascinates my morbid self.
Finally, I love a specific technique that Jackson uses: repetition of a single line from the beginning of the novel at its end. The line is the following:
"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." (3), (246)
As indicated by the page numbers, this sentence first appears on the first page of the book. When I read it, I thought it was pretty cliche, and not frightening at all. Because of course, something will be walking alone in a haunted house, and that's what makes it haunted.
But when the line is repeated at the very end of the book (it literally is the closing line), it has so much more significance to it. It is no longer any random thing walking alone in the house, but Eleanor's spirit specifically. I thought that was a powerful way to end the novel.
I enjoyed reading this book. Since it was written/published some time ago, some of the writing feels artistic and proper, but the dialogue flowed well to me and there were plenty of powerful descriptions and individual lines (such as the one quoted above).
The 'main' character, if you will, became ridiculously interesting and everything comes together in the end. The book wasn't omgIcan'tsleep! scary, but it had plenty of chills scattered throughout it (for me, at least). There was history given to the house, haunting events happening in the present, and a pretty chilling end.
If you're looking for a book about a house haunted by ghosts, this could be a hit or miss, since I feel it can be read as having or not having ghosts. If you hate proper, old-style writing (geez, I have no other way to describe it), you may find this book annoying to read and I would not completely recommend this book. If you want a book where the house itself is haunting, I would recommend this book.
But, overall, if you are a horror type of person, I would definitely recommend this book. It's only 246 pages - my copy, at least - so it shouldn't be unbearable to finish, or a huge waste of time, if you find that you don't like it. I would hold off until the end though; it's pretty satisfying.
I hope this review was helpful. It's a bit long because I wasn't sure how to organize a book review (partly the reason I put off writing one for so long...), but I hope this is somewhat cohesive.
Thanks for stopping by! ('<>')>