Thoughts on “The Haunting of Hill House,” by Shirley Jackson

Do not skip this one just because you didn’t like either of the movies based upon it.

Do not skip this one just because it opens with exposition, one of those Things Writers Are Not Supposed To Do.

Do not skip this one just because the plot sounds like that of so many other haunted house stories you’ve read, or films you’ve seen, or Halloween episodes of TV shows.

“The Haunting of Hill House,” a 1959 novel by Shirley Jackson, is considered by many to be the best modern haunted house novel ever. It certainly is the best I have ever read.

The set-up is familiar: A remote house has a tragic history, and is reputed to be haunted. A professor studying paranormal activities arranges to rent it for a summer, and assembles a group of people — some of whom have had previous experience with paranormal phenomena — to stay there with him. Things get spooky in fairly short order.

I realize that plot sounds like a great many pulpy stories, some of which in and of themselves are fun reads. But Jackson elevates the form in several ways.

First is the prose. It is straightforward and smooth, but at times poetic.

Second is Jackson’s use of the unreliable narrator. The book is not written in first person, but the story is largely told through the experiences of Eleanor, a woman who lost much of her life taking care of an invalid mother and who veers between flights of fancy that sometimes buoy her and sometimes cripple her. Her relationships with the other characters, and with the house, propel the story and keep the reader guessing and involved.

Third is the atmosphere. Ghost tale writers strive for an unsettling atmosphere; Jackson makes it seem easy. Because Eleanor herself can’t always be sure of what is going on, the reader can’t be, either. And Jackson’s descriptions of Hill House, with its weird geometries (shades of Lovecraft here) and stern housekeeper who absolutely will not remain on the premises at night, create the properly unsettling environment for the spooky events that unveil themselves.

Lastly, there is a genuine gut-punch ending.

This one is light on gore, and does not wrap up all the plot threads in a neat package. It does, however, leave you to ponder its events beyond the last page — and might well haunt you.

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