Author: Shirley Jackson
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: October 2017
“Let us go and open doors,” says Theodora, the livelier of the two women invited to stay at Hill House. The other is Eleanor, the lonely protagonist, and they are joined by two men, Luke (who will inherit the property) and Dr. Montague (who did the inviting).
The four meet for a few weeks one summer to proactively investigate the presumed haunting of the strange place known as Hill House. The name is used over and over again to underscore its place as a character in the novel: Hill House, Hill House. It has off-kilter architecture to put its occupants at perpetual unease. Do the doors always close because the floors are slanted? Or is there some traditional ghostliness about? Regardless, Dr. Montague describes Hill House as “Disturbed, perhaps. Leprous. Sick. Any of the popular euphemisms for insanity; a deranged house is a pretty conceit.”
A pretty conceit indeed, and no wonder that Shirley Jackson couldn’t resist writing a haunted house story. Yet of course the real haunted house is the skull in which a human brain lies: the potential insanity of Eleanor is the true focus of the novel. She has a murky past and we get the sense that she lived a sheltered childhood that involved some sort of trauma from her emotionally distant mother. She is treated as childlike by the fellow guests, especially Theodora. Hill House seems to select her as the easiest victim, and the creepiest scenes feature words appearing on the wall written directly about Eleanor and her desire for a home.
Similar to some of the tales in The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton, it’s refreshing that the characters approach Hill House with a full-on skepticism and openly discuss what a haunting is or could be. Dr. Montague desires to be scientific yet open-minded, even after their first uneasy brush with the mysterious:
In all our conscious minds, as we sit here talking, there is not one iota of belief in ghosts. Not one of us, even after last night, can say the word ‘ghost’ without a little involuntary smile. No, the menage of the supernatural is that it attacks where modern minds are weakest, where we have abandoned our protective armor of superstition and have no substitute defense.
That’s an insightful take: that superstition at least may have provided our ancestors some sort of barrier in the psyche, a means of interpreting the uninterpretable. Without superstition, do our minds start a slow unravel the longer that an explanation eludes us?
So back to the slow unravel of Eleanor. She is a person without place or purpose, full of self-doubt in the presence of others. She goes through phases of affirming her existence (“I have red shoes and tomorrow I will wake up and I will still be here.”) as well as a springtime eagerness to give her new adventure a chance and a struggle to not become cynical about the others’ motives (“I am learning the pathways of the heart.”). Hill House teases, pleases, taunts, and uses her in all her naivety and weakness. You want a nice picnic by the brook? Come, here is a picnic. Hill House shall provide a trail for you to wander down. Alone.
The balance of psychological thriller and good old haunted house bumps in the night builds well, but unfortunately collapses with the introduction of two more characters. Dr. Montague’s wife comes to join, along with her annoying friend/servant. She is boisterous and demanding, disbelieving that Hill House is frightening. Indeed Hill House leaves the newcomers out of its schemes so that they never experience anything unusual, even though Mrs. Montague tries to to make contact with a Ouija board (or planchette). This is the weakest part of the narrative because it seems that Jackson is both commenting on the silliness of the planchette mechanism (Hill House seems indifferent to the attempt) while also lending it some credence (more messages to Eleanor get spelled out). What is the point of these characters and the muddled use of the Ouija board concept? (In real life, look up the ideomotor phenomenon.) It seems like these pages account for lost opportunity to explore more of the house itself. The characters finally interact with the turret, sure, but what about exploring in the other direction? Why does Jackson never take them to the basement, or follow through on the hints at the strangeness of the kitchen layout?
All in all, The Haunting of Hill House sets up a greater Shirley Jackson story to come. Eleanor, a broken dreamer who wants only “peace, a quiet spot to lie and think, a quiet spot up among the flowers where I can dream and tell myself sweet stories,” is a precursor to the even more broken and melancholy Merricat. Jackson doesn’t need the traditional ghost story to get under our skin. She ended up leaving the haunted houses, planchettes, and messages in blood behind. She gave us a more honed haunting stripped entirely of the supernatural: the masterpiece work We Have Always Lived in the Castle.