Reread Review ~ The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Cover via Goodreads

Four seekers have come to Hill House, a scary old abandoned mansion: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar who had been looking for an honestly haunted house all his life; Theodora, a lovely and lighthearted girl there mostly on a lark; Luke, the adventurous future heir of Hill House; and Eleanor, a strange and lonely woman well acquainted with poltergeists and other psychic phenomena. At first their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable noises and slamming doors. But Hill House is gathering up powers and will soon choose one of them to make its own. (via Goodreads)

My Background with The Haunting of Hill House

The first time I read The Haunting of Hill House was in college, probably around twenty years ago. It was definitely during my freshman or sophomore year because I was living on the 5th floor of Pound Hall in a room across from the door to the stairwell. Since I was on the 5th floor, the number of people who used the stairs was nominal, but I could absolutely hear my fellow students coming and going. The room was also supposedly haunted. I’d hear the noise of a ball bouncing and once, as several of my friends were in my room for movie night, we heard knocking from inside my closet. We all noted it with a “well, that’s weird,” but none of us decided to investigate further.

I first heard about The Haunting of Hill House through Stephen King’s Danse Macabre. Happily, UNL’s library had a copy. I checked it out and settled in to read in spare moments. Which is how I ended up reading it one quiet night. And I was at the part where Eleanor and Theo are being terrorized in their room. Bang, Bang, BANG! And a group of my floormates emptied from the stairwell in a cacophony of feet on stairs and doors slamming. I nearly jumped out of my skin.

Notes

I’ve probably read The Haunting of Hill House three or four times since then. I’ve owned two copies. The last time I read it was with an eye on how Jackson creates tension with repetition and rhythm. This time I read it just to see what I could see.

  • Dr. Montague mentions three “real” hauntings: Ballechin House, Borley Rectory, and Glamis Castle. These tales are reflected in what Dr. Montague expects and what his wife “finds” during her automatic writing. Obviously, Jackson knew some of these tales.
  • Dr. Montague reads Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded:

    It tells the story of a beautiful 15-year old maidservant named Pamela Andrews, whose country landowner master, Mr. B, makes unwanted advances towards her after the death of his mother, whose maid Pamela had been since age 12. Mr. B is infatuated with her, first by her looks and then her innocence and intelligence, but his high rank hinders him from proposing marriage. He abducts her, locks her up in one of his estates, and attempts to seduce and rape her. She rejects him continually, but starts to realize that she is falling in love with him. (via Wikipedia)

    Which kind of parallels Eleanor’s journey. Pamela is super boring.

  • Eleanor has a persecution complex, as do other characters in Jackson’s works. (Indeed, Shirley Jackson herself was fairly neurotic and reclusive.)
  • Eleanor is literally damned before she leaves town.
  • I forget how much of this novel takes place outside of the actual house. We have Eleanor leaving home and imagining three separate futures for herself before ever reaching Hill House. Many of the daytime incidents occur outside. It isn’t just the house that’s haunted.
  • I meant to take more notes, but by the last 50-75 pages of the book, I was totally sucked in.

Discussion

  1. Do you see Hill House’s horrors as being different for its male and female inhabitants? Any gender issues at play here? Considering Eleanor’s experience and Theo sort of being caught on the periphery of that, Dr. Montague and Luke get off relatively scot-free. The men sort of have to live with the responsibility of what happened at Hill House, Montague as the planner and Luke as the property owner.
  2. What’s up with the ghostly disturbances in this book? Eleanor’s blooming telekinetic abilities, real-deal ghosties, a big mess of unreliable characters? What say you? Personally, my debate has always been between Eleanor and the house. Aside from some distant narration at the beginning and the end, the novel is told through Eleanor’s eyes. Eleanor is pretty unbalanced, but I don’t think the house is innocent. Even if it’s not haunted, it’s unsettling and that could put a person on edge.
  3. The Haunting of Hill House was first published in 1959. What aspects of 1950s culture or society do you see the novel critiquing, criticizing, or commenting on? It’s really hard for me to decide on what 50s culture is. Any idea I have is based on popular culture which isn’t entirely real. On one hand, Eleanor seems to be the prototypical good girl. She’s innocent and has dutifully taken care of her mother for years. On the other hand, during those years, she’s missed the milestones that her sister has hit: husband, child, house. This would seem to open up the spinster spot for Eleanor, but she still wants better for herself. Unfortunately, that ambition isn’t rewarded. Far from it.
  4. Most Gothic novels are written in an ornate style, but Jackson chooses a simplistic style with a conversational word choice. What does it add to this harrowing tale? Do you find that it detracts in some places? I’m not sure I’ve considered The Haunting of Hill House to be a Gothic novel. There’s sort of a lack of Romanticism which is usually a hallmark of Gothic fiction. Although, it’s almost as though Eleanor *wants* to be in a Gothic novel. As for the language used, I have no problem with it at all.
  5. The Big One: what is it about Hill House that allows it to consume Eleanor’s sanity so efficiently? Or, what is it about Eleanor that allows Hill House to consume her sanity? Again, for me, it’s always been a combination of Eleanor and Hill House. She has a vague ambition, a fantasy of some other life she could live. She’s unloved and unappreciated and pretty much alone. She’d be the perfect target for a cult. Instead there’s Hill House with its own kind of twisted charisma ready to step in.


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8 thoughts on “Reread Review ~ The Haunting of Hill House

  1. Tim Prasil

    The film adaptation of this novel, titled simply The Haunting (1963), is one of the greatest haunted house movies ever made!

    And both novel and film are classics in the Occult Detective cross-genre, something I’ve been known to say a few things about, thank you very much.

    1. The Haunting is excellent, one of my personal favorites.

      I’ve always like the conceit of “stay in the haunted house to study it” (or to win money — The House on Haunted Hill is its own schlocky fun). Obviously, lots of people agree with the number of ghost hunter reality shows.

  2. Great post! This was my first reading of Hill House, but it definitely won’t be the last. I didn’t know the story or what to expect and felt slightly off balance throughout. Hope to watch The Haunting sometime this month.

  3. I like your comment that Eleanor wants it to be a Gothic novel. I see her as trying to make what’s supposed to be a mundane experience into something more exciting and romantic because of the lack of opportunity she faces in her own future. She’s so desperate for something to happen to break her out of her day-to-day life.

  4. I like your interpretation of the House playing off of Eleanor. She’s such an interesting character — weak but very strong at the same time. The idea that Eleanor wants to be in a gothic novel is an interesting one. Everyone else sees this trip as an interesting diversion where she needs it to change her whole life.

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