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The Haunting of Hill House (thoughts)

September 23, 2008

Technically, I’ve succesfully completed the R.I.P. III challenge, since I only committed myself to one book! If my library card ever comes in, I definitely want to read a couple more, though. ;)

Anyway, back in May Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle bowled me over with its perfection. So of course for R.I.P. III, I wanted to read her other famous book: The Haunting of Hill House. And while I’m still impressed with Jackson’s writing, and there were several creepy moments during the reading, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is still firmly in top place.

I think this might have a little bit to do with the fact that the more recent movie adaption, The Haunting was one of my sister’s favourite movies for awhile, so I’ve seen it several times. So it was difficult for me to completely divorce the book’s characters and plot from the movie’s. And the movie took some distinct liberties with the book; they were quite similar up to about halfway through, and then the movie took the horror route while the book stuck with a more quiet, psychological evil.

For those who haven’t seen the movie or read the book, it begins with a classic haunted-house set up. A paranormal psychologist gets permission to stay in Hill House, a place notorious for weird happenings, for the summer. Joining him are the eventual heir of the house (a requirement of the agreement) and two women who had paranormal experiences in their youth. The rest of the book records their experiences in the house, through the eyes of one of the women: Eleanor.

Jackson prefers narrators who are a touch off balance. Eleanor is a middle-aged woman who has never really had a life; for years, she tended her sick, domineering mother. And while her mother has recently died, she’s now under similar pressure from her domineering sister. Her trip to Hill House is, then, a bid for freedom, for reinvention and a new kind of life. However, her character is essentially one of a follower, so she quickly latches on to the stronger personalities she encounters.

Unfortunately for her, it just so happens that Hill House has a very strong personality…

Jackson’s strength is the ability to slowly weave in more and more unsettling things until the ‘wrongness’ of the thing almost overwhelms the reader. She’s an expert at the subtly sinister; however, in Hill House she never fully commits herself. Eleanor is an unreliable narrator, so there’s a just a twinge of doubt surrounding most of the ‘ghostly’ happenings that is never fully dispelled. It certainly seems as if Hill House is intent on capturing the people who have dared invade it. But then, the whole story is filtered through Eleanor’s impressions, which get more and more chaotic as the book progresses.

I think that kind of pitch is the perfect one to maintain, and the ending has that feeling of inevitably which great endings are made of. That being said, I’m not in perfect raptures over this one the way I was over We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I think it’s because there are so many things left unanswered in Hill House. We get quite a bit of backstory about Hill House, but the mysteries of the backstory are never uncovered. There just seems to be have been scope for a larger story; an extra hundred pages would have made me perfectly satisfied. Whereas We Have Always Lived felt self-contained, Hill House feels one draft away from a finished version.

Obviously, though, I still loved reading this one! And I’d definitely recommend it to anyone: Jackson is an incredible writer and there are moments of perfect brilliance, both scary and comedic. The comedic aspect comes when the psychologist’s wife comes to visit partway through the story; she’s such a perfect parody of ‘spiritualists’ (she treats her planchett as a pet, calling it ‘planchett’ by name and referring to its moods) and she runs so roughshod over her husband I had to laugh out lout (see the last passage in my favourites to see what I’m talking about!). Now I’m going to share my favourite scary scene: when I got the last line of this paragraph, I swear my blood ran cold. (Eleanor has woken up in the middle of the night and can hear a small child sobbing):

Now, Eleanor thought, perceiving that she was lying sidesways on the bed in the black darkness, holding with both hands to Theodora’s hand, holding so tight she could feel the fine bones of Theodora’s fingers, now, I will not endure this. They think to scare me. Well, they have. I am scared, but more than that, I am a person, I am human, I am a walking reasoning humorous human being and I will take a lot from this lunatic filthy house but I will not go along with hurting a child, no, I will not; I will by God get my mouth to open right now and I will yell I will I will yell “STOP IT,” she shouted, and the lights on the way they had left them and Theodora was sitting up in bed, startled and disheveled.
“What?” Theodora was saying. “What, Nell? What?”
“God God,” Eleanor said, flinging herself out of bed and across the room to stand shuddering in a corner, “God God-whose hand was I holding?”

All of that being said, if you’re only going to read one Shirley Jackson, I’d make it We Have Always Lived in the Castle. But you really should read both! ;)

Favourite Passages
“In any case,” the doctor said, “I will not sleep for an hour or so yet; at my age an hour’s reading before bedtime is essential, and I wisely brought Pamela with me. If any of you has any trouble sleeping, I will read aloud to you. I never yet knew anyone who could not fall asleep with RIchardson being aloud to him.” Talking quietly, eh led them down the narrow hallway and through the great front hall and to the stairs. “I have often planned to try it on very small children,” he went on.

“Theodora,” she said, and closed her eyes and tightened her teeth together and wrapped her arms around herself, “it’s getting closer.”
“Just a noise,” Theodora said, and moved next to Elenaor and sat tight against her. “It has an echo.”
It sounded, Eleanor though, like a hollow noise, a hollow bang, as though something were hitting the doors with an iron kettle, or an iron bar, or an iron glove. It pounded regularly for a minute, and the suddenly more softly, and then again in a quick flurry, seeming to be going methodically from door to door at the end of the hall.

“I daresay she was walled up alive,” Mrs. Montague said. “The nun, I mean. They always did that, you know. You’ve no idea the messages I’ve gotten from nuns walled up alive.”
“There is
no case on record of any nun ever being-”
“John. May I point out to you once more that I
myself have had messages from nuns walled up alive? Do you think I am telling you a fib, John? Or do you suppose that a nun would deliberately pretend to have been walled up alive when she was not? It is possible that I am mistaken once more, John?”
“Certainly not, my dear.” Dr. Montague sighed wearily.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. September 23, 2008 12:14 pm

    “The Haunting” was a really creepy movie. If you ever decide to watch it I suggest going for the 1963 version. It’s much better than the remake.

    I have to say I am so impressed by how many books you manage to read while working on a Masters. Where do you find the time?

  2. September 23, 2008 12:20 pm

    This certainly seems to be the way most people feel about Jackson’s books. They really like both, but like “Castle” a little more. I just wish she had written a lot more than she did.

  3. September 23, 2008 12:45 pm

    I’ve read HILL HOUSE a couple of times, and just recently read CASTLE for the first time. Although HILL HOUSE still holds the edge as my favorite Shirley Jackson book, I’ll definitely be revisiting CASTLE. I also picked up a book of her short stories, as the only I’ve read is (no surprise) “The Lottery.”

    The opening paragraph to HILL HOUSE is one of my favorite book openings ever. I also love the passage you listed: “Who’s hand was I holding?”

  4. September 23, 2008 12:52 pm

    Hey congrats on finishing your R.I.P. challenge :)
    I really liked Haunting of Hill House but I definitely need to read more by Shirley Jackson. I keep seeing We Have Always Lived in a Castle lately so I think that’s a sign!

  5. September 23, 2008 1:54 pm

    Oh goodie! I’ve been virtually salivating over this book lately, and I think you just pushed me over the edge to get my grubby little paws on it.

  6. September 23, 2008 4:00 pm

    I like “Haunting” much more than “Castle,” so I must be in the minority.

    Rent the Julie Harris (1960’s) version of “The Haunting.” It’s terrific and very spooky. The modern remake made me gag severely, to the point where I now refuse to watch any more movies starring Liam Neeson. It was just horrible!

  7. September 23, 2008 6:39 pm

    LOL at Chartroose’s comment! I have only seen parts of this movie; I adore Lili Taylor.

  8. lena permalink
    September 23, 2008 8:36 pm

    I just recently finished We Have Always Lived in the Castle and I am a great fan. I’m excited to read this book and being the non-Hollywood-movie-lover than I am, I didn’t even know it had a movie!

  9. September 23, 2008 9:58 pm

    I want to read We Have Always Lived in the Castle now. I havent seen ‘The haunting’, but on discovery channel there is this series called ‘The haunting’ which shows read life ghost stories in a dramatised form. Really scary.

    And now i am sad that i don’t have a single scary book in my TBR pile. I had Rosemary’s baby, but I am finished with that.

  10. September 24, 2008 5:48 am

    Interesting. I like that Eleanor is so unreliable, that actually made the story creepier for me. Maybe which book you like best also depends on which one you read first? I read Hill House first and loved it and like it more than We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Hmm, it would be an interesting survey.

  11. September 24, 2008 8:43 am

    I loved this review! I have this book, too, in a Jackson compilation..must read, must read.

  12. September 24, 2008 2:02 pm

    This sounds like something I’ll love, but I can’t imagine anything more perfect than Castle. Anyway, I’m very very tempted to include this one in my Read-a-thon list.

    Congrats on officially finishing RIP! I hope you do read more, though. I’d love to get more recommendations from you :D

  13. September 25, 2008 8:55 am

    TheDuckThief, well I’ve seen the remake several times, but I’ll try out the older version one of these days. :) As for reading while getting a master’s, I hadn’t read much at all until last weekend, when I gave myself all of Friday night and Saturday to do whatever I wanted! It’s all about finding a balance. ;)

    Lisa, really? I thought most people liked Hill House more! Interesting. :D

    Blu, that’s the only one of her stories I’ve read too! Can’t wait to see what you think of them.

    Iliana, thanks! I think it’s a sign too-it’s a quick read.

    Andi, have fun with it! You make reading sound so dirty. hehe

    Chartroose, I think you’re in the majority! lol @ your impression of the remake…it was pretty bad, but in order to spend time w/ my sister I had to keep watching it.

    Care, the more people talk about it, the more I want to see an original!

    Lena, that’s a good thing: I wish I hadn’t seen the movie.

    Violet, ohhh: I’ve seen a few episodes of that Discovery series, and it is seriously so creepy. Ack! I don’t have any scary books in my TBR pile either, and my stupid library card still hasn’t come in.

    Stefanie, I really liked Elanor’s unreliability too: I hope I didn’t give a different impression! I was wondering if the fact that I had read Castle first affected my view of it. It would be an interesting survey!

    Tara, thanks! A Jackson compilation is definitely a must read. :D

    Nymeth, I’m with you: Castle is perfect. But this one is good! I really want to read more; I don’t know what’s going on w/ the library. As soon as I have time and feel better, I’m going to go over there and just get one in person.

  14. September 26, 2008 5:09 am

    I am in perfect agreement with you about Jackson, “Castle” and “Haunting”!

  15. September 27, 2008 9:02 pm

    Reading your comments and your review are interesting because I too have heard more people recommend Hill House of the two books. I haven’t read it but did read Castle earlier this summer and really enjoyed it. It had one flaw in my opinion, I didn’t find the motivations of the male relative to be very true or well explored through to the end, but to me that was a minor quibble because the book was very, very good. I need to get a review written for it myself!

  16. October 1, 2008 7:57 pm

    Bybee, yay for perfect agreement!

    Carl, that’s a good point about Castle, and one I hadn’t really noticed.

  17. October 20, 2009 10:05 am

    Reading the Haunting of hill house has taught me so many things as an aspiring writer, but possibly the most wonderful is how to lead the reader by the hand through a daydream, only then to pull the rug, propelling them into a nightmare.

    ~Darkest eternal Regards Sebastian~


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