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.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I’ve heard so much about this book since I started blogging, particularly around this time of year when it seems such a popular choice for Halloween or the dark winter nights. Yet somehow I had managed to avoid reading any detailed summaries of the plot and so when I finally picked this book up to read it for myself, I was able to go into it with very little knowledge of what it was about. I would hate to spoil things for any future readers, so I’ve deliberately tried to keep my summary here as vague as possible.

The book is narrated by eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine Blackwood, or ‘Merricat’, who lives with her sister Constance, their Uncle Julian, and Jonas the cat in a big house on the edge of town. Near the beginning of the story we see Merricat walking home with some shopping, being taunted and chanted at by everyone she passes. It seems the Blackwoods are very unpopular, but at first we don’t know why.

When Merricat returns home, it becomes even more apparent that something is wrong. Merricat herself does not seem like a normal eighteen-year-old – she likes to bury things in the grounds of the Blackwood house and believes that using magic words and rituals will protect her home and family. Constance is agoraphobic and afraid to walk any further than the garden. Uncle Julian, confined to a wheelchair, is obsessed with the book he’s writing about a tragedy that occurred six years earlier. And what exactly has happened to the rest of the Blackwood family?

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a great book and now that I’ve read it I can see why it’s considered a modern classic. Something that impressed me about it was the way the story was cleverly constructed so that the truth about Merricat and her family was only revealed very slowly. We know from the first page that something is not right but we’re not quite sure what it is. As we read on we start to form some suspicions, though we’re made to wait a while to find out if we’ve guessed correctly or not.

This is a very disturbing and unsettling book with its portrayal of the claustrophobic world behind the locked doors of the Blackwoods’ house and the cruel, hostile atmosphere of the town outside. Some of the sense of unease comes from the fact that the book is narrated by Merricat, who clearly lives in a world governed by her own rules and superstitions. The reader becomes trapped inside her mind and is made to share her unusual outlook on life. And yet although there’s something slightly sinister about her, Merricat is also very child-like and both she and Constance have a vulnerability that made me concerned for them, locked away in the isolation of their ‘castle’.

The ending was not quite what I had expected and I was left with questions that still hadn’t been answered, but having thought about it, maybe it was a suitable ending for such a strange and powerful book. This was my first experience of Shirley Jackson’s work and now I’m looking forward to reading The Haunting of Hill House.