Paperback – fiction; Penguin Modern Classics; 246 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Reviewing two Shirley Jackson novels in the space of a week might border on overkill, but having very much enjoyed We Have Always Lived in the Castle I was anxious to try The Haunting of Hill House, which was originally published in 1959.
First and foremost, unlike We Have Always Lived in the Castle, this is a horror story. Of course, the title itself should give you an inkling of the subject matter, which is essentially a rather creepy tale about a haunted house.
Now this is where I put up my hand and declare that I’m not much into the horror genre. I read so many of these types of books (think Stephen King, Dean R. Koontz, James Herbert and Anne Rice) in my teens and early 20s that I eventually became bored with their formulaic style. And since then I can count on one hand the number of horror stories I’ve read (Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian and Bram Stoker’s Dracula).
There’s no doubt that The Haunting of Hill House is a creepy, look-under-the-bed-and-check-the-closet type reads. But in Jackson’s capable hands it also has a smattering of humour throughout, so it’s not overly claustrophobic and is far less spine-chilling than, say Stephen King’s The Shining, which this book brought to mind quite a few times. But Jackson ratchets up the suspense by playing with the minds of the characters, so you’re never entirely sure whether the terrifying events she depicts happen physically or psychologically.
The book opens with a rather ominous description of the house.
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and some of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
Into this secluded mansion come four main characters: Dr John Montague, a doctor of philosophy, who thinks himself something of a “ghost hunter” and has rented the house for three months in order to find scientific evidence of the supernatural; Eleanor Vance, a 32-year-old loner, who has spent the past 12 years looking after her (now dead) invalid mother; Theodora, a Girl Scout type with psychic abilities; and Luke Sanderson, a liar, thief and heir to the house.
The house has two dour-faced caretakers, Mr and Mrs Dudley, who live in the closest town, six miles away.
“I don’t stay after I set out dinner,” Mrs Dudley went on. “Not after it begins to get dark. I leave before dark comes.”
“I know,” Eleanor said.
“So there won’t be anyone around if you need help.”
“We couldn’t even hear you, in the night.”
“I don’t suppose–”
“No one could. No one lives any nearer than the town. No one else will come any nearer than that.”
“I know,” Eleanor said tiredly.
“In the night,” Mrs Dudley said, and smiled outright. “In the dark,” she said, and closed the door behind her.
It doesn’t take long before creepy things begin to occur inside Hill House, but I’m not going to divulge them here. You’ll just have to read the book yourself. But make sure you do it in daylight. And preferably not while you’re alone.