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The Haunting of Hill House (Penguin Classics)

“Luke,” she called, leaning over the banisters. “Doctor.” Her voice was not loud, and she had tried to keep it level, but she heard the doctor’s book drop to the floor and then the pounding of feet as he and Luke ran for the stairs. She watched them, seeing their apprehensive faces, wondering at the uneasiness which lay so close below the surface in all of them, so that each of them seemed always waiting for a cry for help from one of the others; intelligence and understanding are really no protection at all, she thought.

Any haunted house story should feature the haunted house as the main character. You wait with bated breath for the next room revealed, the next move it makes. The people staying in such a place can be sympathetic or not but ideally they should be able to hold their own against the house, retaining concern (if sympathetic) or at least interest. The brightly sketched quartet of guests who make their way to the eponymous locale at the beginning of The Haunting of Hill House seem made to fit the bill, but the interest I felt in their fates was quashed as soon as they opened their mouths.

Dr. John Montague, a researcher of the paranormal cast sadly adrift in the 1950s (far past the heyday of Victorian ghost hunters and spirit mediums) resolves to stake his reputation on investigating the ill-reputed Hill House. Needing assistants for his research, he hires two young women with paranormal incidents in their backgrounds (a seemingly psychic card-reading in the case of bohemian Theodora and a poltergeist incident of falling rocks in the unhappy childhood of Eleanor Vance, our protagonist). Along with Luke Sanderson, the charming but useless young man who stands to inherit Hill House, the group moves in for the summer and choose (in a show of bravado and then as a coping mechanism) to act like carefree schoolchildren on holiday; behaving like overgrown Bobbsey Twins, planning picnics and engaging in wannabe-Wildean banter. Here’s Luke and Theodora playacting (they call Eleanor “Nell”):

“I would like to have been a goatherd, I think.”
“If you were not a bullfighter.”
“If I were not a bullfighter. Nell’s affairs are the talk of the cafes, you will recall.”
“Pan. You should live in a hollow tree, Luke.”
“Nell, you are not listening.”
“I think you frighten her, Luke.”

They talk like that a lot. Even Dr. Montague behaves in this asinine manner (pouting when it turns out Theodora doesn’t know how to play bridge, for example). After the first manifestations he complacently states that “not one of us, even after last night, can say the word ‘ghost’ without a little involuntary smile.” This was the moment where I realized that, horror classic or not, I was incapable of feeling any concern for these nitwits and started rooting for the house. It felt as if Shirley Jackson herself lost her interest in the cast, particularly the males, as soon as they entered Hill House. Luke is introduced feet first as a liar and a thief but nothing further is done with this information and he spends most of his time engaging in stale make-believe with the girls and manning the brandy decanter. Eleanor’s sole conversation with him leaves her bored – …the only man I have ever sat and talked to alone and I am impatient; he is simply not very interesting. Hey, I don’t blame her and I suspect Jackson felt the same. Montague has equally little use outside of the exposition and house tour he provides. As for Theodora, her characterization is patchy and changeable from scene to scene (critics like to read lesbian subtext in the two women’s interactions but I think Eleanor has way better chemistry with Hill House than any of the people staying there).

Eleanor is thus the only one who is reasonably well-developed. As a repressed and troubled woman whose catchphrase could be “my mother…” it’s no surprise that The Haunting of Hill House gets pegged as psychological horror. She’s not too tightly wrapped at the beginning and only gets worse but I wouldn’t agree that she’s an unreliable narrator – she’s in a haunted house that is stated in the first paragraph to be a living organism and repeatedly bends physics when it gets riled; rather than our heroine, the entire story is unreliable. Eleanor is a brittle, self-pitying mess but she really does have nowhere to go and she commands sympathy as Hill House focuses its attention on her and the others respond by turning a blind eye to her increasingly erratic speech and behaviour. They are all strangers to each other and this provides a genuine chill – in such a scenario, this troubled woman is derided and ostracized, looked down upon as an attention-seeker; implicitly seen as the weakest link, she’s offered no real support even from Dr. Montague, who should be taking full responsibility for his assistants. The sense of isolation that is a major part of the atmosphere in The Haunting of Hill House has as much to do with the people in it as its out-of-the-way location.

Still, most of the book’s shivers and fascination are in how Hill House reacts to Eleanor. I’ll spare the specifics of what it does but the house remains noticeably quiet until Eleanor shows it some respect, feebly protesting the uncleared dinner table left for the housekeeper in the morning. That very night comes the first aggressive manifestation. The following morning Montague describes poltergeist phenomena, eliciting a most disconcerting mood swing in Eleanor: Suddenly, without reason, laughter trembled inside Eleanor; she wanted to run to the head of the table and hug the doctor, she wanted to reel, chanting, across the stretches of the lawn, she wanted to sing and to shout and to fling her arms and move in great emphatic, possessing circles around the rooms of Hill House; I am here, I am here, she thought. She shut her eyes quickly in delight and then said demurely to the doctor, “And what do we do today?” Hill House is quick to respond…

This is what caught my interest, as Eleanor’s view of the house changes from loathing and fear to a rhapsodic sense of freedom and unity with it. Since the story wasn’t scaring me anyway I took this more mystical interpretation and rolled with it, though I’m sure Jackson intended Hill House to be an evil thing and the ending horrific (which it absolutely would be in real life). I feel a bit guilty about this but what else could I do? The dialogue is atrocious, the major characters underdeveloped, the minor ones completely stock (like the standard-issue horror-movie housekeeper and Eleanor’s petit bourgeois cliché of a sister) and Jackson killed what was left of her spooky atmosphere with the late addition of the “comic” character Mrs. Montague. She strides through the pages like one of Bertie Wooster’s fire-breathing aunts, being deeply offensive and belittling to everyone she sees and – despite being ready-made for some satisfying karmic retribution – she gets away without even a word against her. There’s nothing funny about her inclusion and she completely changes the tone of the novel just as Hill House prepares its most sinister onslaught.

The Haunting of Hill House was published in 1959 and I am perhaps being too hard on it. The characters get in the way but most of the supernatural occurrences are subtly drawn and memorable acts of the imagination. No gruesome manifestations are to be found and the housekeeper’s introductory speech is the only bit that verges on cartoonish. The actual horror elements have not dated. They didn’t “scare” me but I found myself pleasantly creeped out at times (to say nothing of the last 15 pages, which finally drop the quaint conversation charade and are unquestionably the strongest and most intense portion of The Haunting of Hill House).

Looking at reviews, it’s clear I’m the odd one out. Most people respond to the writing, the scares, the characters. I was remarkably unmoved by the entire thing. Perhaps I just don’t play ball when it comes to horror fiction – after all, my main points of comparison while reading were with two unusual short stories: Felisberto Hernández’ ‘The Balcony’ and Franz Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis.’ Make of that what you will and seek this out if you think it’ll have a better effect on you than it did on me.

Shirley Jackson