The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson
a review by Rich Horton
And you know what? I ended up reading it in late October -- so it's a well-timed Halloween read!
I both read and listened to the book, having bought the recent Penguin Classics reissue, with an introduction by Laura Miller; and having also got the audiobook narrated by Bernadette Dunne. I listened to the book on the way to work, and read it at night, so probably I experienced it 50/50.
Hill House is an isolated house in a rural part of the East, one assumes upstate New York though that's not specified. The nearest village is Hillsdale, about six miles away. The house's reputation is ominous, and it has been unoccupied for a couple of decades, except for occasional renters, who always leave much before the end of their lease period.
The latest renter is Dr. John Montague, a professor who has an interest in occult matters. He stumbled across the story of Hill House -- built in the late 19th Century for a man whose wife died just as they moved in, mostly lived in by his two daughters, who ended up fighting viciously over the property, finally ceded to the estate of the companion to one of the sisters, who (the companion) had committed suicide in the house. Dr. Montague invites a number of people who seem to have had psychic incidents of their own to stay there with him one summer. Two accept: Eleanor Vance, a spinster in her early 30s, just freed from the tyranny of caring for her ailing mother, and Theodora, a free-spirited and vaguely artistic woman who has quarreled with her roommate. The two come to Hill House, along with Luke Sanderson, the somewhat raffish son of the current owners, and of course Dr. Montague.
The action takes place over about a week. Eleanor is the main character. She is beautifully realized (and Theodora is also well-depicted, though Luke and Dr. Montague never really come much into focus.) She is clearly yearning for, let's say, a life -- after decades of oppression at the hands of her mother and then her married sister. But she has no idea how to go about that, and she clutches at whatever scraps of friendship are offered by Theo or Luke. Dr. Montague is a prosy middle-aged man, and much of his character is revealed late in the book when his rather awful wife shows up with her elderly male friend Arthur. (They are obsessed with psychic manifestations, and things like planchette, in a way that annoys Dr. Montague.) The other character of mild prominence is Mrs. Dudley, the housekeeper, set in her ways, a wonderful cook but not a very friendly person, and like all the locals, profoundly wary of Hill House.
Over the few days they are there, there are disturbing incidents. The House is architecturally weird, easy to get lost in. There are horrible messages written on the walls, some in blood. There are noises in the night, and things seem to want to get into everyone's rooms. Strange things happen outside as well. And much of this seems directed at Eleanor. Meanwhile, Eleanor is getting attached to Theo (and it is strongly hinted that Theo is a Lesbian -- though Eleanor seems to have no real concept of adult relationships with either men or women.) Eleanor seems more disconnected from reality -- or connected to Hill House's (un)reality -- as time goes on -- and this leads to a dark resolution.
It's very well written, and eerie without ever being quite, well, horrific, which makes the shocking ending more effective. We don't really learn what's going on -- and that's right, because mystery is part of the affect here. It's a very good novel, very involving, and a good example of a book that does not outstay its welcome. Definitely recommended.
As for Laura Miller's introduction -- it's solid work, well done. I have read a lot of Laura Miller's writing about books, and she's always worth reading. That said, I felt that she and I didn't quite read the same book -- her view of Eleanor was not wrong, but it wasn't quite mine. Which is fine -- but I'll adduce that as yet another piece of Jackson's mysteriousness.