Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)

No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice. Almost any house, caught unexpectedly or at an odd angle, can turn a deeply humorous look on a watching person; even a mischievous little chimney, or a dormer like a dimple, can catch up a beholder with a sense of fellowship; but a house arrogant and hating, never off guard, can only be evil. This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity. It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed.

My super awesome friend Dan loaned me a copy of one of his favorite books, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959). This book was made into a movie called The Haunting in 1963 (which I have seen and which is awesome) [and remade in 1999 into a movie I haven't seen, but have heard kind of sucks]. And since I liked the old movie so much, I was very excited to check out the book. As you might expect, it was wonderfully great.

Dr. Montague is a supernatural researcher who has finally found the perfect haunted house -- Hill House -- so he rents it out (naturally no one was living there at the time) and writes letters to dozens of people who, for one reason or another, seem like they may be receptive to ghosts and hauntings. Only two people respond: the shy and inexperienced Eleanor, who spent the past decade caring for her sick and recently deceased mother, and who experienced a three day storm of stones on her house after her father died when she was a young girl; and the cynical and urbane and somewhat psychic Theodora who comes out to Hill House from the city on a whim after a big fight with her partner. The doctor and the two women are joined by Luke, the nephew of the woman who currently owns Hill House.

The two women have an instant rapport, and Eleanor is fascinated by all her companions and amazed that they find her interesting and worth talking to. Even when the house starts acting up at night, Eleanor is more happy to be away from her family and out in the world than scared of the supernatural presence. The group spends most of their days joking with each other, exploring the grounds, and making fun of the dour housekeeper. Their nights are spent drinking brandy, playing chess, and eventually going to bed only to be woken up by strange noises in the hallways. Things escalate when Eleanor's name is written on the walls in chalk and blood. Eventually the tight-knit group blows apart -- but is it the fault of the ghosts or the fault of the humans?

Jackson's book is not only genuinely creepy, it is a masterful psychological thriller and a wonderful piece of literature. Our look at this group is through the eyes of Eleanor, a completely sympathetic (and yet also unreliable) narrator who journeys farther than any of the other characters in the book, even though she is only a few hours from her home in the city. And the ending is just perfect. I lovedlovedloved this book and I can't wait to read more of Shirley Jackson's work.

Thanks Dan!

[back cover available here, for all you book cover nerds.]


Joolie said...

I should give this one a try. Have you read "We Have Always Lived in the Castle"? I had so much fun reading that and immediately foisted it on Eric, who liked it a whole lot too.

Spacebeer said...

I haven't read that one, but Dan gave me a copy, so it is in my pile!

Dan said...

Those are my two favorites, though others are great. She has two memoirs which I loved.

nikki said...

I also need to read this one. "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" is great. & I also enjoyed a book of her short stories.