The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

HillHouseReadalong I’ve included this book on my R.I.P. list every year since I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle in 2011, but this is the first year I’ve actually found time to read it, thanks to a readalong hosted by the Estella Society. They have posted some discussion questions for us today, which I didn’t see until I had already written my post…though I think I’ve said everything here that I want to say anyway. I’ll look forward to reading what everyone else thought of it!

The Haunting of Hill House is a 1959 novel by Shirley Jackson. Dr John Montague, an anthropologist and psychic investigator, is renting Hill House for the summer in the hope of studying the supernatural phenomena and ghostly manifestations that he believes take place there. After assembling a list of people who have had previous paranormal experiences he invites them to stay in the house with him as his assistants, but there are only two who accept the invitation: Eleanor Vance, a shy, lonely woman of thirty-two, and the confident, outgoing Theodora. Accompanied by Luke Sanderson, whose aunt is the owner of Hill House, Dr Montague and his guests arrive at the house one by one and wait for something to happen.

Things do soon begin to happen but I can’t tell you too much about those happenings because as with all books of this type it’s best if you know as little as possible before you start. All I will say is that the story is told from Eleanor’s perspective…and Eleanor is not always entirely reliable. The supernatural element of the novel is quite subtle and you can never be completely sure what is going on. Because we spend so much time inside the head of a character who is unstable and insecure it’s difficult to tell exactly what is real and what isn’t.

The Haunting of Hill House I didn’t find this book as frightening as I’d expected, but that could just be because I deliberately avoided reading it late at night (I’m a coward when it comes to books like this). There are certainly some very creepy moments, though – without having to resort to graphic horror, Jackson is still able to unsettle the reader and convey the feeling that something isn’t quite right. I loved the descriptions of Hill House – it has all the characteristics you would expect a haunted house to have, including a tragic history – but there are very few physical manifestations of ghostly activity. The creepiness of the story comes mainly from the fact that we don’t know how much of the ‘haunting’ is caused by Hill House itself and how much is the product of Eleanor’s disturbed mind.

I had been looking forward to reading The Haunting of Hill House because of its status as a classic American haunted house story and because I loved the other Shirley Jackson book I read. I really wanted to love this one too, but I have to be honest and say that I didn’t. It was good, but not as good as We Have Always Lived in the Castle. However, if you’re new to Shirley Jackson, I would recommend either of these two books as a perfect read for this time of year.

17 thoughts on “The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

    • Helen says:

      That’s what I liked about it too…I thought the ambiguity made it so much more frightening than it would have been if it was just a conventional haunted house story.

  1. Cat says:

    I rather like the more subtle or ambiguous ghost tales that make you come to your own conclusions. I remember enjoying this one but also like We…..Castle more.

    • Helen says:

      Maybe I would have loved this book more if it had been the first I read. I did enjoy it, but I think We Have Always Lived in the Castle was a more unusual and memorable story.

    • Helen says:

      We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a great book. I’d like to read it again one day as I’m sure there were things I missed the first time!

  2. janceewright says:

    I didn’t read it at night, either. I’m such a chicken. Especially because I’ve seen the 1963 film version, so I already knew what would happen. But I still couldn’t do it. And when I did finish it, I couldn’t sleep without my hands tucked safely under the blankets.

      • janceewright says:

        I realized that this season is always a problem for me. I like to read in bed, but I don’t really plan non-spooky, safe backups, so I either have to find some courage or just not read before going to sleep. The struggle is real.

  3. lakesidemusing says:

    Funny, I purposely avoided reading this at night, too, but then ended up not finding it scary at all… definitely a slow build that kept me a little off balance throughout. I enjoyed We Have Always Lived in the Castle much more, but plan to reread Hill House next year. Now that I know the story, I can play closer attention to how Jackson managed to create the building tension and unease.

    • Helen says:

      It was definitely not as scary as I thought it was going to be! I would like to re-read both this book and We Have Always Lived in the Castle as I’m sure there were a lot of details I missed in both.

  4. Grace says:

    I loved the psychological aspect of the book and the fact that it’s never made clear how much of the haunting is caused by the house and how much is Eleanor’s mental break. I have a thing for unreliable narrators and loved hearing her perspective. 🙂

  5. curlygeek04 says:

    Everyone is saying Castle is better so I’ll have to read it! I did find this book as scary as I expected, but then I’m not sure what I expected. From The Lottery I expected a thoughtful read and I got that! But scenes like the writing on the wall and the vision at the lake definitely gave me chills. Also all the waiting and wondering really built the suspense.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, those scenes that you mention were very creepy and so was the one with the hand in the dark! I haven’t read The Lottery yet but am looking forward to it.

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