The Haunting of Hill House (Horror 174 pages) by Shirley Jackson is the first book I’ve read out of the required Readings In the Genre: The Haunted for one of my classes this semester. As I tend to do book reviews for everything I read, this kind of assignment tends to work out rather well for me.
To be fair, I haven’t really read that much horror. I have a very vivid imagination and a lot of the mass market stuff hasn’t appealed to me. So I visited two bookstores and one of the local libraries today to see if I could find the books on the list. I purchased three and found one more in the library about a mile from where I live. I spent a few hours of my afternoon reading The Haunting of Hill House on the porch while a light drizzle sprinkled the world around me. In this sense, I would say that my physical setting and the setting of the book were nicely matched.
I chose The Haunting of Hill House to read first because it looked to be the shortest of all the books I was able to find for class today. With my current stresses at work and in my life in general, I needed to be able to feel like I actually accomplished something tangible today. This may have looked like a short book, but it was a very in-depth read.
One of the first things that really stuck out with me is how descriptive this book was. There were a lot of times while I was reading where I could smell or feel or see the world described. The descriptions of the house itself and how it was purposefully designed to unbalance a person made me feel unsettled. I spend a good deal of my free time building and I can’t even imagine either the pure genius or the absolute insanity to actually build a stable building that was structurally designed on incorrect angles. The descriptions were very solid, but for whatever reason, I couldn’t actually get a good idea of the actual layout of the house in my head.
The kind of passages like the one on page 37 really spoke to me while I was reading, “It led them tantalizingly closer to the sound of water, doubling back and forth through the trees, giving them occasional glimpses down the hill to the driveway, leading them around out of sight of the house across a rocky meadow, and always downhill.” I think it might be because I grew up in a heavily wooded area that I can see this whole scene in my mind while I was reading it, and that might be the case for most of the book as to why I felt it gave me such a vivid internal picture of the setting for this book.
Even more of the descriptions and their affect on me were found during Eleanor’s adventures to actually get to Hill House. Every line while Eleanor drove her stolen car along her adventure to Hill House and the way she experienced the world really stuck out with me. I think it’s likely because of the descriptions of Eleanor’s adventure and her imagination along her drive that I actually found myself enjoying this book greatly. Her encounter with the old lady who said she would pray for her and the little girl with the glass of stars and her first meeting with Theodora were so well written that I felt I could almost experience exactly what Eleanor experienced and follow her train of thought.
I spent a lot of time relating to Eleanor and empathizing with what she was going through. I also empathized with Theodora and the way she viewed the world. It was an interesting mix to bounce back and forth between which of them I related to the most. I think I related to Eleanor more, though, because I really felt her genuine sense of belonging when she was happy in the house. For the first time in her life, she didn’t have to take care of anyone and she didn’t have to be the responsible one making decisions. She could go wherever she wanted and do whatever she wanted without fear of reprisals or of not being responsible. I guess that might be another reason why I related to her is because she spent so much of her life taking care of other people, specifically her mother, that she forgot what it meant to be alive and in a sense, she forgot that she ought to take care of herself.
Hill House provided Eleanor with a sense of belonging that she lacked for her entire life before arriving there. She felt like she was a part of something and that her presence was enough. Maybe it was my own desire to have people to share my life with that helped me to see through Eleanor’s eyes so clearly; how she could tell when the others were being dishonest or when she thought about how Theodora was just being a spoiled baby. To Eleanor, it didn’t really matter to her when the others were behaving badly because they were still there. So when Hill House started encouraging her to share her life with the house and to work to experience things through the house, it was subtly playing on her need to belong and to have a sense of community.
I was partly happy for Eleanor that she wouldn’t have to return to the life that she knew, but I felt that Eleanor was cheated because Hill House lied to her. She didn’t gain any greater community or sense of belonging by crashing her partially stolen car on her way back to the old life that she didn’t like. The house tricked her and trapped her, just like it did to so many others before her and now she’s part of it, but not really any less lonely.
The interaction with Mrs. Montague, Arthur, and Mr. Montague was rather amusing. Mrs. Montague and Arthur are annoying and pretentious right from the time when they arrive. I was kind of secretly hoping that the house would claim them first and that Hill House was going to wind up being malicious instead of just lonely, but the house was a reflection of Eleanor and her views of the world, which was evidenced clearly during the Planchette session on page 133. So even though I started this book with the expectation of it being horror and having a substantial body count, the only person who actually died was the character I was cheering for to hope that her life would get better and that she would find a way to feel loved and wanted. Meanwhile, the characters that I didn’t particularly like continued to carry on. Such is life, both in the world of fiction and in the real world. Things don’t work out the way you would hope and the good guys don’t win as often as we would like.
Overall, I was surprised about how much I enjoyed this book. I would probably rate it as a high three or a low four on my rating scale. I wish I owned this book and didn’t have to borrow it from the library. I also believe it was a good introduction read for me into the sub-genre of hauntings.