“The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson

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 its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for 80 years and might for 80 more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

So starts The Haunting of Hill House, one of the acknowledged classics of the ghost story genre. And after so striking an opening, how could I not continue?

Given my love of creepy ghost stories, I really don’t know why it has taken me so long to get round to this this one,. I had, of course, seen the marvellous film version from 1963 directed by Robert Wise, as well as, I’m sorry to say, the predictably inept modern remake.

The problem usually with ghost stories of novel length is that the sense of supernatural terror cannot really be maintained over long stretches: it is so fragile a state of mind that the slightest intrusion of reality shatters it. As a consequence, the author generally has to pad the thing out, and the padding usually isn’t very interesting; or, worse, it detracts from the element of the supernatural. (I thought this was very much the case with the most recent example of this genre that I read, The Ghost Writer, which is actually rather fine once you get past the padding.) But Shirley Jackson avoids this issue by making this essentially a novel about a mental disintegration, and relating the supernatural elements to this central theme.

The story, such as it is is slight, and the set-up may be regarded as a bit hackneyed. Hill House is regarded as a haunted house: it has an evil history, and currently lies unoccupied. And here, Dr Montague, anthropologist, conducts an experiment in psychic phenomena. And to do so, he invites to Hill House three strangers – one who has telepathic powers; another who has telekinetic powers; and a third who is a relative of the owner, and is the house’s future owner. These four strangers assemble, and then, weird things start to happen. So far, so familiar: but the plot is never in itself an important element, I feel, in a ghost story. The ghost story is,it seems to me, a somewhat conservative genre: its impact depends not on any innovation, but in doing estalished things well. What matters – what the work must be judged on – is not the plot, as such, but how frightening the author can make it.

The principal character, Eleanor Vance, has been invited to the experiment because of her apparent powers of telekinesis – powers that she herself is not aware of. She is in a state of mental turmoil to begin with, and what she encounters in Hill House could well be emanations of her own mental state. This is not to suggest that the supernatural is illusory: other characters quite explicitly experience the supernatural. But Eleanor possibly does have telekinetic powers, and it is entirely possible that it is she who, albeit unconsciously, is the true source of the haunting. Shirley Jackson very skilfully integrates together a psychological study, and a creepy ghost story, but balancing the two elements does not become an issue, as the two are effectively the one and the same: as the ghostly incidents (although no ghost is ever actually seen) intensify, and become ever more harrowing, so Eleanor’s vulnerable mind becomes increasingly unhinged, as she moves from initial terror to acceptance, and even happiness, and by the end becomes convinced that the house itself is a conscious entity, and that, what is more, the house wants her: for the one and only time in her life, she is wanted.

Eleanor’s mind is the only one the author allows herself to enter. As a consequence, we don’t find very coherent pictures of the other characters, because Eleanor herself find them difficult to understand. Particularly difficult to understand is the other lady invited to the experiment – Theodora, who, it is strongly suggested, is lesbian: at times, Theo appears to Eleanor to be sisterly and affectionate; at other times, cruel and mean. But over the few days over which the story is set, all these characters become, for Eleanor, less significant: what matters is the house itself. Whatever these other people may or may not want, this house, insane, wants her, wants Eleanor. And she is determined to stay.

Quite frequently, the ending is the weakest part of a ghost story, for at the end, issues need to be resolved, and resolution usually requires a revelation in terms of plot; and that detracts from the sense of mystery that is ideally required by the ghost story. But here, the ending – which, to judge from various internet “reviews”, many find disappointing – seems to me perfectly judged: it is a resolution of what had gone before, and seems to me rather shocking. It does not detract in any way from the sense of fear that has so expertly been generated.

***

I don’t know that I should recommend this book to those who don’t care for the genre. I have always loved the creepy ghost story, so this was right up my street, as they say, but I do know there are those who find the genre eminently resistible, and do not find much sense of terror in the thought of what may be lurking unseen in the shadows. And, sadly, there are those also whose sensibilities in these matters are so coarsened by modern horror films that they appear to respond only to the explicit. What frightens one seems to be as unpredictably subjective as what makes one laugh. So I had better restrict myself to saying that this frightened me. And it frightened me consistently, right up to that ending. There is no better recommendation than that for a ghost story.

14 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Brian Joseph on May 28, 2012 at 6:15 pm

    Hi Himdari – I love the 1961 film version of this novel. I have not read the book. Your review makes me want to. I really like well made moves of this Genre but I have not read much literature along this lines. I have read Edgar Allan Poe and HP Lovecraft extensively but they are somewhat different. This one looks to be good starting place.

    As for our sense of horror being coarsened by modern films, like yourself, I personally still find subtlety and the right atmosphere to be the most frightening.

    Reply

    • Hello Brian, the ghost story genre is one I have long loved, and it’s not quite, I think, the same as the horror genre (in which Poe and Lovecraft excelled) although there are, obviously, overlaps. M. R. James is often considered the master of the ghost story genre, and, being myself a fan, I won’t dissent from this. (MRJ himself admired Sheridan le Fanu in this genre, and it’s easy to see why.) James’ stories, are very understated: he re-inforces a sense of the everyday, so that when the supernatutral element irrupts (sometimes in just a sentence or two) it is all the more frightening. He deplored excess, or anything explicit: any glimpse of the supernatural must be through, as it were, the corner of the retina. Accustomed as we now are to excess, MRJ’s approach is possibly out of step with our age, but then again, MRJ remains popular.

      MR James’ contemporary and namesake, Henry James, was also much attracted to the genre (for many, The Turn of the Screw is simply the finest ghost story, and once again, I wouldn’t dissent from that view).

      I’d say that the best introduction to this genre is The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories edited by Michael Cox and R. A. Gilbert. (The “English” of the title refers to the language in which the stories were written rather than to the nationality of the writer.)

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

  2. The 1961 version is the best IMO. You are on a roll with the ghost theme. I bought this one recently which is a bit of a coincidence.

    Reply

    • That Robert Wise film is superb, isn’t it? That scene with Claire Bloom & Julie Harris in that room together, with those banging noises coming ever closer, is about as terrifying as anything I’ve seen.

      I’ve always loved this genre and I really don’t know why I don’t read more of it. I will, from now on!

      Reply

  3. Himadri – I’ve neither read this nor seen the Robert Wise film (curious, in that I seem to be watching lots of Robert Wise lately), but I’m intrigued by your comment about the difficulty of sustaining “the sense of supernatural terror” over long stretches. I’m now maddeningly searching my brain for examples of lengthy ghost novels and coming up empty. I’ll be curious to see if any of your other readers can come up with some.

    Reply

    • The Turn of the Screw is an obvious example, and while many will say that it is more than a ghost story, I’d say that to be “more than a ghost story”, it must, first and foremost, be a ghost story. On a somewhat lesser scale of artistci achievement, perhaps, but absolutely terrifying nonetheless, is Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black: reading that is bed at night I really did find quite unnerving.

      Sue Gedge (who has posted below) knows this genre far better than i do, and I am certainly going to follow up some of her suggestions.

      Reply

      • I guess I still though of The Turn of the Screw as a short work (and you’re absolutely right in your praise of The Innocents below – what a great scary film!). I don’t know the Susan Hill book, nor had I heard of any of Sue’s recommendations, but I’ll try to make amends.

  4. Posted by alan on May 29, 2012 at 7:45 pm

    I guess I’ll have to read this in order to know what you are talking about.
    I’ve tended to suspect that the haunted house might be a metaphor for the weird things that go on in families.
    Metaphor is the wrong word – perhaps an old house just awakes powerful memories that would otherwise be buried, and maybe this has provoked the haunted house genre. Perhaps some memories, when awakened in some people, have a visual force.
    Discuss.

    Reply

    • I think a skilful author can create a fictional world in which the partition between metaphor and reality can become paper-thin, or even completely dissolve. In Dickens’ Bleak House, a character dies of spontaneous combustion. It is pointless arguing over whether or not this can happen in the real world: it happens in Dickens’ fictional world, and it is simultaneously real and metaphorical.

      So yes, supernatural phenomena may well be reflections (real or imagined) of one’s inner state of mind. That is certainly the case, I think, both here, and in The Turn of the Screw. But before we reach this level of subtlety, he story must work in its most basic form – i.e. it should be frightening. Now, not everyone, I realise, finds the creepy ghost story particularly scary, but, for whatever reason (and feel free to analyse me in the light of this! :) ) I do! I love that sense of creeping dread that I feel when reading the best examples of this genre – this fear not so much of what is revealed, but of what might be revealed!

      The Haunting of Hill House really is one of the best I’ve read.

      Reply

  5. Posted by Sue Gedge (Klara Z) on May 30, 2012 at 5:39 am

    Great blog! I love Shirley Jackson’s writing, “The Haunting of Hill House” and “The Lottery” are my favourites, and I think the Robert Wise film of this book is superb. Regarding Scott’s query about novel-length spookiness, John Harwood’s ‘The Ghost Writer’ has already been discussed on this blog—this novel, however, does deoend on stories-within-the-story. I can, however, nominate other examples—The House of Lost Souls by F.G.Cottam, and The Vanishment by Jonathan Aycliffe amongst them.

    Reply

  6. Oh, and I should add ‘The Little Stranger’ by Sarah Waters!

    Reply

  7. Great post, Himadri. I’ve not read The Haunting of Hill House, nor seen the film… but that opening to the story is such a lure… and your post increases the intrigue. Funnily enough, I seem to have found myself wandering a lot of creepy, ruinous buildings – both in books and blog posts I’ve read lately – so my thoughts have been circling around all that gothic symbolism of dark, hidden rooms related to psychological states and hauntings of mind…

    I think you’re right about brevity being the natural manifestation of the ghost story. Any padding does seem to stretch the effect to a point where it will begin to weaken. There seems to be a natural tipping point on which the best creepy stories manage to just balance nicely, maintaining all that sense of unease and suspense.

    Reply

    • Hello Melanie, I can strongly recommend both the book and teh earlier film version – but if you like a good ghost story, I’d also very strongly recommend The Innocents, which is about the only film I can think of that frightens me even when I think back on it!

      I think that the state of mind that the author of a ghost story needs to evoke in a reader – a state of mind that is susceptible to suggestions of supernatural terror – is very fragile, and it is virtually impossible to maintain it over long stretches. However, it certainly can be done, and I’ll certainly be following up Sue’s recommendations above.

      Reply

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