The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson


The gates are locked. Hill House has a reputation for insistent hospitality; it seemingly dislikes letting its guests get away.

Shirley Jackson sets the mood straight away, bringing us closer and closer to Hill House as one of the four guests, Eleanor, drives there in the car she has taken against her sister’s wishes. Eleanor seems unable to stop herself from going, and early on we suspect one of the reasons lies in the line she keeps repeating in her mind:

Journeys end in lovers meeting.

A sweet sentiment, this, with which she can easily deceive herself. Three fourths of the way through the book she finds herself on the steps of the summerhouse beside Luke, the heir to Hill House, and she tries to draw him into a romantic conversation, into revealing his affection for her. But at the end of their discussion, which is quite matter of fact, she thinks to herself, “All I want is to be cherished.”

Maybe, more than a house of ill porportions in which walls seem to shift and doors close of their own accord, what is scariest about Hill House is the loneliness of Eleanor.

Her desperation is so acute that I suspect she imagines they form some sort of family: Dr. Montague, Luke, Theodora and Eleanor herself, all living in Hill House to discover what sort of paranormal activity might be taking place there. There’s even a cook, Mrs. Dudley, who reminds me strongly of Rebecca‘s Mrs. Danvers, presiding over Manderley.

When Dr. Montague’s wife comes, she sits with planchette (like a Ouja board), and discovers that someone named Eleanor Nellie Nell Nell (it tends to repeat a word over and over to make sure it comes out all right) wants a home, and with this summation I concur. Eleanor doesn’t want messages from beyond, or ghostly encounters; she wants a friend. A home. Peace.

Peace, Eleanor thought concretely; what I want in all this world is peace, a quiet spot to lie and think, a quiet spot among the flowers where I can dream and tell myself sweet stories.

Eleanor does find peace, in a shocking way. A respite from her loneliness, or a respite from the evil in Hill House which has gradually overpowered her, whichever side you chose to see. For far more than a simple ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House speaks to the shadows and darkness ready to grasp at any of us.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

And so the old house has just been sitting here.” Luke put out a tentative finger and touched the marble cupid gingerly. “Nothing in it touched, nothing used, nothing here wanted by anyone any more, just sitting here thinking.”

“And waiting,” Eleanor said.

“And waiting,” the doctor confirmed. “Essentially, he went on slowly, “the evil is the house itself, I think. It has enchained and destroyed its people and their lives, it is a place of contained ill will. Well. Tomorrow you will see it all. The Sandersons put in electricity and plumbing and a telephone when they first thought to live here, but otherwise nothing has been changed.:

“Well,” Luke said after a little silence, “I’m sure we will all be very comfortable here.

Right. Very comfortable in a house where Dr. Montague has brought three assistants (Eleanor, Luke and Theodora) to help him analyze the ‘supernatural manifestations’ which might take place in this infamous house? Through Jackson’s talented writing, the reader knows darn well that no one is going to be comfortable, quite possibly even when the tale concludes.

The house takes on almost human characteristics. It breathes. It deceives. It wraps its inhabitants with a chilling cold. But, there is no denying that some force is there, too, relentlessly knocking on the doors with a steady, unending thumping. Shutting doors so that the guests are lost or confused in the passageways going from room to room. Leaving blood all over Theodora’s bedroom and clothes so that she has to move in with Eleanor. Seeming to call vulnerable girls up the dangerous turret staircase to see if they will fall to their deaths.

But scariest to me is the loneliness of Eleanor. When I read of her not being wanted, not having a place to call her own, being emotionally abused by her mother until she became a weak and timid thing, I knew that she was the scariest part of being at Hill House. She was the most vulnerable to its evil ways. And, indeed, she succumbs in the end.

Before I go, can I just say that Shirley Jackson’s picture creeps me out? There’s something about her that just doesn’t seem right. Something lurking behind that expression, behind those pale glasses covering half closed eyes…within the lines of the half turned up smile. It gives me shivers.