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Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House revolves around three intrepid explorers who accept Professor Montague’s invitation to spend a summer living there, getting to know one another and getting to know—intimately—the workings of the house…

haunting of hill houseThough she never made it past the young age of forty-eight, Shirley Jackson was known for two important things during her lifetime: her bizarrely perceptive anti-democratic short story, “The Lottery,” and her humorous Family Circle-like anecdotes about her own four kids, husband, and household. Her most famous novel, The Haunting of Hill House—ostensibly about the occult and occult occurrences—has been made into a movie twice since the book was first published. Neither instance did justice to the depths and complexities of Jackson’s fine psychological novel. 

Though Russell Kirk never cited The Haunting of Hill House or the author, it is rather clear to anyone who has read his Old House of Fear or his Lord of the Hollow Dark that Jackson must have had a substantial influence over him. She lingers over the entire atmosphere of these two Kirk novels. Willing to cite the inspiration directly, Stephen King describes her importance explicitly in his own history of horror in novels and movies, Danse Macabre. As King sees it, Jackson has reached the “quiet epiphany that every writer hopes for.” In some mysterious way, he continues, Jackson has written “words that somehow transcend words, words which add up to a total greater than the sum of the parts.” Additionally, King openly borrows two elements from Jackson’s novel: the repeated line, “Whatever walks in Hill House, walks alone,” as well as the incident of stones falling from a clear sky on a house.  The same incident is central to King’s first novel, Carrie, and it is mentioned in several of his other novels.

Before any Imaginative Conservative might be tempted to dismiss Jackson as “merely” a horror writer or an Erma Bombeck-lite, please take note that her writing style far surpasses anything produced by her better-known contemporaries and near-contemporaries, such as John Updike and Philip Roth. Indeed, Jackson’s writing in The Haunting of Hill House is as strong as anything produced by any revered American writer from the past hundred years or so. King, as noted above, saw art surpassing art in The Haunting of Hill House, and it would be the cynic indeed who would readily disagree with this sentiment. Take, for instance, the words that moved King so much—the opening paragraph to the novel:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding a darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Hill House, not sane, stood by itself.

Though Jackson described the history of the house, the gossip that surrounded many of its scandals, and the emotions (often quite angry, though rarely bloody) let loose in the house, she never fully explained—much to her credit and to the lasting depths of the story—why exactly the house was “haunted.” When the question of haunting naturally occurs in the story, the lead anthropologist, John Montague—a rather Kirkian scholar who hopes to offer some rational explanation for the obviously irrational—explains that certain structures throughout human history have always seemed disturbed, sick, diseased, leprous, vile, unclean, forbidden. “Certainly there are spots which inevitably attach to themselves an atmosphere of holiness and goodness; it might not then be too fanciful to say that some houses are born bad,” Montague claims. “Hill House, whatever the cause, has been unfit for human habitation for upwards of twenty years. What it was like before then, whether its personality was molded by the people who lived here, or the things they did, or whether it was evil from its start are all questions I cannot answer. Naturally I hope that we will all know a good deal more about Hill House before we leave. No one knows, even, why some houses are called haunted.” And, while there may exist scientific and observable reasons as to why a house continues to be discomforting, it is most likely out of the realm of the visible to understand why it began that way.

In his own praise of the work of Jackson, John J. Miller explains why the haunted house has such power to move and unsettle us.

The novel’s power draws straight from the disturbing likelihood that the house itself is the antagonist. This possibility violates the very essence of what a home should be: a place of safety, nurture, and comfort. The living can choose to avoid graveyards, where apparitions may rule at night. Shelter, however, is not optional—and so haunted houses pose a special threat to our collective sense of security (John J. Miller, “Chilling Fiction,” Wall Street Journal, October 29, 2009).

The Haunting of Hill House revolves around three intrepid explorers who accept Professor Montague’s invitation to spend a summer living there, getting to know one another and getting to know—intimately—the workings of the house. While one of the invitees, Luke Sanderson, is a member of the extended family that legally owns the house, the other two had been invited by the professor because they had each experienced paranormal activity during their lives. Of these two, the more interesting is known only as Theodora. Bohemian and cynical, but still quite kind and empathetic, she is almost certainly a lesbian. That Jackson only hints at this possibility makes Theodora an absolutely fascinating character. Truly, she’s one of the most intriguing characters I’ve encountered in modern literature. Had her lesbianism become obvious, Theodora would never have leapt off the pages in the manner she does throughout the book.

The protagonist is a lonely and somewhat disturbed thirty-two-year-old, Eleanor Vance. From the first chapter to the last, it is unclear if the book is really about a haunted house or if it’s about Eleanor descending into madness. Of course, the answer to this question might very well be a “both/and” rather than an “either/or.” A liar and a romantic, Eleanor has spent her entire life in the shadow of her domineering mother. Free of her mother for only two months—after her mother succumbed to death, possibly due to Eleanor’s neglect of her health—Eleanor has moved in with a hated sister and her family when we meet her in the novel. When the invitation arrives from Dr. Montague, Eleanor readily and gladly accepts, assuming it a chance not only to escape her familial imprisonment but also as a chance to find her own individuality and personality. As Eleanor departs her sister’s family, and as she interacts with the other three in Hill House, she reveals her strong loves and hatreds, often confusing one for the other and sometimes being unable to separate herself from those around her. She even begins to doubt her very existence: “I could say all three of you are in my imagination; none of this is real.”

While Hill House harasses Eleanor, she also finds herself in sympathy with it and its anger. Both resents their past, it seems, and both wrestle with their contradictory desire for solitude and company. At one critical moment, Eleanor realizes that should the house and Montague’s explorers find themselves in opposition, she would side with the house. Though I will not spoil the ending—a rather shocking one—I will say that Eleanor finds herself in much deeper trouble than she could possibly have imagined.

Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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3 replies to this post
  1. Given the (unobvious, apparently to some folks) platitude that books and film are different genres and direct translation can not be made, and given the horror (the horror) of the Hollywood versions, your description intrigues me. The book may be worth the time.

    BTW, why is it that your “cultural” pieces get less traffic from the com-box commandoes than the overtly “political” essays here?

  2. I loved the 1963 movie version “The Haunting.” I thought it did an effective job of teasing out the characters, portraying the claustrophobia of the house and the descent into madness of Julie Harris’s character, Eleanor. It scared me to death as a pre-teen. I read the book in my twenties and was surprised by the nuance that was absent from the movie.

  3. Thanks for highlighting this book. It stands up to repeated readings. It will call you back over the years. Eleanor’s journey highlights what can happen to lives devoid of expressed love or simple compassion.

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