Shirley Jackson has a particular talent for writing that is creepy without being gory, graphic, or gratuitously violent. I’m not big on the horror genre, so when this task came for the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, I knew I would turn to Jackson for another one of her fantastic yarns. Much of what I loved about We Have Always Lived in the Castle is present in The Haunting of Hill House (1959). It’s much more psychological than it is outright scary and it’s a wonderfully engaging read.
Dr. John Montague has called four individuals to assist him in his paranormal studies of the eerie Hill House. Two – Eleanor Vance and Theodora (known as Theo, no last name) – accept and Luke Sanderson, the homeowner’s nephew, joins them. Their job is merely to observe any strange goings on in the house and report them to Dr. Montague. Joining the cast of characters are the houses two caretakers, Mr. and Mrs. Dudley, both of whom refuse to be at the house after dark. “I don’t stay after I set out dinner.,” Mrs. Dudley advises Eleanor. “Not after it begins to get dark. I leave before dark comes… So there won’t be anyone around if you need help… We couldn’t even hear you, in the night… No one could. No one lives any nearer than the town. No one else will come any nearer than that… In the night. In the dark.” As Mrs. Dudley smiles ominously, closing the door and clearly enjoying the nerves she’s imparting on Eleanor, so the die is cast for what will clearly be a vacation from normality.
In truth, both Eleanor and Theo have been called upon due to previous experiences with supernatural activity. When young, Eleanor’s house was pelted with rock by some unseen force, which she explains away as coming from neighbors, and Theo is believed to have some sort of telepathic ability. But it is Eleanor that is the focus of the story, and it is Eleanor that soon becomes the focus of the house.
It is unknown what exactly happened at Hill House to cause these disturbances, but Dr. Montague surmises that sometimes houses are destined to be disturbed. “Certainly there are spots which inevitably attach to themselves an atmosphere of holiness and goodness;” he explains to the group, “it might not then be too fanciful to say that some houses are born bad. Hill House, whatever the cause, has been unfit for human habitation for upwards of twenty years.” What is known, or, rather, becomes clear, is that Hill House is out to get claim one of them as its own.
Much of the spookiness takes place off the page, with the reader only privy to some of the characters’ thoughts. Rather than taking us out of the action, this distancing creates and even stronger sense of tension in the story, as we’re just as anxious to find out the cause behind the sinister noises and unseen forces wracking the house. The Haunting of Hill House may seem a bit tame compared to modern horror stories, but its revelry in fear cannot be beat.