When Netflix released its adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House in 2018, I followed the crowd and got hooked. Who can resist a good horror story? I adored this series and it made me think that I should read the book. A colleague at work told me that the book and the show are in no way similar, but that the book is wonderful and I should read it. I can now confirm that both of those things are true.
The stage for Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is set at the remote mansion of Hill House, where Dr John Montague has invited some people to spend the summer with him. He believes the house to be haunted and plans to investigate this theory during their stay. Eleanor and Theo are the only two guests to accept the invitation and the character of Luke also joins them, as he is in line to inherit Hill House. At the beginning of the book, you think you’re going to get a simple story about ghosts. As the tale progresses, it twists into a much darker and much more intriguing story.
Shirley Jackson has mastered the art of slowly building tension and suspense. I will never forget the slow build-up of horror that I felt whilst reading her short story, The Lottery. In The Haunting of Hill House, you experience that same escalation of tension as Hill House unleashes its horrors upon its guests. The following extract encapsulates how Jackson speeds up her narration and ratchets up the terror, as she approaches the explosive climax:
Now, Eleanor thought, perceiving that she was lying sideways 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 were on the way they had left them and Theodora was sitting up in bed, startled and dishevelled.
‘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?’
That last line is exceptional. Its simplicity enhances the terror of that moment. Whose hand was I holding?
One of the aspects of this book that gripped me the most was the passionate relationships that the characters quickly form with each other. Eleanor and Theo’s friendship is the main one that is explored and it developed in a captivating way. They immediately fit together and become like best friends or lovers. As they spend more time together though, Hill House seems to take hold of their emotions and this relationship becomes fractious and hateful. As Hill House is a first-person narrative by Eleanor, we do not know how much of what we are told is due to her being an unreliable narrator. Does Theo hate her? Are the other characters conspiring against her? Is the house causing these tensions or is it all in her mind? I’m not sure. But it was fascinating to see these relationships grow and gradually become infected.
We are offered no explanation as to why Hill House holds such an evil presence. We do not know its backstory, nor do we know who or what haunts it. We are not even certain that the house is haunted, and I am still intrigued by the possibility of the house itself being a malevolent presence. Perhaps none of these things are true and it is the case that, for reasons unknown, staying at Hill House drives some people to madness. By leaving these elements unexplained, the reader is allowed to theorise and come up with their own chilling speculations. This is my kind of horror. I cannot tell you the number of times a horror film has left me disappointed at the end when it explains the monster to me. Once I understand it, it holds much less power over my imagination. Fear of the unknown is greater than fear of the thing itself.
I really enjoyed reading The Haunting of Hill House and would recommend it to any horror fan. It is a subtle horror, one that holds little melodrama, unlike its Netflix adaptation. If twisted relationships and heightened anxieties that lurk just below the surface are your kind of thing, then this is the book for you. Hill House remains a mystery to me and that is just the way I want it to stay.