Years ago, when I was a young girl, my family vacationed in a big city; an environment totally out of my element. On a walk with one of the older city children, we happened upon a spooky looking house. The boy whispered to me that the house was haunted and told me that we had to be careful not to get captured by ghosts and drawn inside. With that he turned and ran away, leaving me alone. To this day, I don’t know what triggered my fight or flight, fear of the house or fear of being alone and abandoned. I remember my world spinning out of control filled with overwhelming fear and terror; as fresh today as it was sixty years ago. Ironically, Shirley Jackson published The Haunting of Hill House that same year I was frightened to death; 1959.
Dr. Montague, an anthropologist by trade and an investigator of supernatural events as an addictive sideline, has signed a three-month contract to rent the infamously haunted Hill House. His purpose is to definitively document the existence of paranormal activity. He feels his best chance of stirring up the mysteries of the house would occur if other people having had brushes with abnormal events in the past were with him.
He locates twelve persons and issues cleverly crafted invitations specifically avoiding the word “haunted” to spend “all or part of a summer at a comfortable house… the purpose to observe and explore the various unsavory stories about the house…”. Three curious people respond and agree to meet him there:
Eleanor Vance, a friendless, angry, and depressed thirty-two-year-old woman looking for “freedom, adventure, friendship and love” after years of caring for a mentally abusive invalid mother. Her life post-mother with her evil sister remains loveless and unfulfilling. Theodora, a free-spirit artist, arrives needing to spend time away from her roommate following a spat and hoping for a great adventure. Luke Sanderson, young heir to the house and a liar and thief, sent by his Aunt to represent the family’s interests and to get him out of her hair for awhile. Jackson tosses in a scary pair of caretakers, the Doctor’s haughty wife, and Hill House itself to the cast of characters.
Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more… [S]ilence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
The first character to arrive is Eleanor. Unlike the others, we are with her as she makes her first bold move away from her horrible life, steals her sister’s car, and heads on on her first road trip, alone. Along the way, she begins to see life in a new way. She enjoys collecting trivia and creates imaginary life scenes in appealing places along the journey. The newly freed Eleanor will continue to be the book’s narrator.
The first sign of danger in this strange opportunity hits her when she arrives at Hill House in the twilight hours of the first night.
She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile; … get away from here at once.
No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition…turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake… It was a house without kindness…
Things don’t seem as ominous to her when the others arrive and find the house ugly but fairly harmless. For the first time in her life she begins to relax around people. She begins to imagine a new life with these people that extends beyond this brief visit to Hill House; finally friends and people who care about her. She lies to the group to project an image of herself that is appealing and interesting.
Other than doors that shut by themselves and meeting the humorless housekeeper and her robotic mealtime directives, nothing happens that first night. Eleanor falls asleep thinking… this is home. It will be home for the group for the next week.
The group takes a tour of the house and they hear the house’s sad and malevolent history from Luke. They find the house’s atmosphere, dark, morbidly decorated, rooms and hallways oddly laid out with crooked corners, and as confusing as a corn maze. When they reach the library doorway in the eerie stone tower, the reputed scene of a tragic suicide, Eleanor recoils in fear. The reader is left with the sense that heartbeat of house is contained in the tower’s walls.
The story moves at a snail’s pace for the first 100 pages. It enables the reader to feel the creaks in the floor, the shifty lighting, the unsettling feeling of being swallowed by the house, becoming lost in its bizarre layout. We observe a transition happening within Eleanor as she experiences, often in the company of others, increasingly terrorizing nightly sounds that accelerate by the day. The story turns darker as Eleanor begins to fall apart. At the same time, the others ride out the house’s attempts to scare them without negative effects; no one, other than Eleanor, feels any real danger from the house.
Eleanor, rocking to the pounding, which seemed inside her head as much as in the hall, holding tight to Theodora, said,”They know where we are,” and the others, assuming she meant Arthur and Mrs. Montague, nodded and listened.
We slip into Eleanor’s stream of consciousness and feel the mental meltdown as it is happening. She sees, in her mind, that Theo and Luke are conspiring against her and feels they mock her at every turn. She sees them treating her just like her mother and sister. Outwardly she projects an affinity to the group while internally developing rage, hated and mistrust of Theo and Luke. The group, unaware of Eleanor’s degenerating mental condition, finds humor in her unease and proclivity to spout quaint quotes, most often cited, is a line from from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: Journeys end in lover’s meeting…
The reader, collecting clues from those tedious first 100 pages, realizes that there are parallels between the original homeowner’s tragic story and Eleanor’s life, real and imagined.
Near the end of that first week, Dr. Montague becomes aware of the effect the atmosphere of the house is having on Eleanor and repeatedly tries to make her leave. But she is adamant she will not be forced to leave leading to a highly dramatic conclusion. Hill House, with that evil grin, wins. Journeys end in lover’s meeting…
I found it difficult to rate the book. I settled on a solid three star rating. Those first 100 pages seemed to drag with no action. In a 230+ paged book, I found it hard to imagine anything happening that would match the more contemporary horror genre. I was determined to stick with it and thought I would start over with the audio version and it made all the difference. Once I grasp the fact that is was really a psychological thriller, I started watching the dialogue more closely and was sucked inside Hill House.
Returning to my own haunted house experience, I could better understand Eleanor’s inability to extract herself from the creeping insanity. Who knows how permanently scarred I would be if I had wandered into my spooky house as a ten-year-old and spent the night listening to the old house groan against history and neglect. Has anyone else be scared witless? I’d love to hear from you.