by Shirley Jackson
“The house was vile. She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.”
Reading The Haunting of Hill House is a disconcerting experience of the sort that leaves one feeling mildly dazed after enduring an altered state of consciousness – rather, I imagine, like emerging from an unpleasant psychedelic trip.
Described as a Gothic horror novel, Shirley Jackson’s 1959 supernatural thriller is the story of four paranormal seekers gathered together by Dr. John Montague, an occult scholar seeking evidence of a “haunting” in a house notorious for unearthly goings-on. He rents the supposedly cursed pile for three months to investigate reports of psychic disturbances, inviting along its young heir, Luke, and two women with experience of the paranormal, Theodora and Eleanor. All are strangers when they meet but the group quickly bonds. However, fear is a destructive emotion and the house’s powerful manifestations play havoc with their new-found camaraderie.
Jackson’s writing is cinematic in a Hitchcockian sense, and the book has twice been adapted to film, though not by the Master of Suspense. There is also, if I am reading it correctly, muted suggestions that the flirtatious Theodora is a lesbian, which would have been considered shocking in the late 1950s, so we are left to speculate if the “friend” with whom she normally resides is a woman.
The true horror of Hill House is not so much supernatural visitants as what happens in the minds of its temporary occupants; especially the much put-upon and exceedingly vulnerable Eleanor with her vivid imagination and deep-seated mother issues. The characters are all inclined to manic chatter when under stress, which is unsurprising given the circumstances, but their unrestrained if amusing patter is integral to the escalation of terror.
Jackson’s sinister tale is chillingly accomplished, subtly humorous and deserving of its status as ‘the definitive haunted house story’. Nonetheless, the author’s real genius is in using complex relationships between the inexplicable happenings and the characters’ psyches. The Haunting of Hill House is as much about mental health as horror.
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.”
This is my fifth choice for The Classics Club.