(Click here for information on the 2017 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. This month, the September selection, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.)
Well, a week after Halloween we finally get to Shirley Jackson’s iconic ghost story… but really the chilly winds of November make for an even better backdrop for reading it… despite the fact the story itself takes place in the summer.
The basic set up (a disparate group of people converge on a sinister house to embroil themselves in supernatural phenomenon) has been done with casting ranging from Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck to the Bowery Boys.
In the opening page we learn that it is Dr. John Montague (“…a doctor of philosophy; he had taken his degree in anthropology, feeling obscurely that in this field he might come closest to his true vocation, the analysis of supernatural manifestations”) has gone through a lot of trouble to secure the rental of Hill House for the summer, initially envisioning “a summer-long house party for skeptics and believers, with croquet and ghost-watching as the outstanding attractions.”
However he has quickly learned that compared to Victorian times “skeptics, believers and good croquet players are harder to come by today.” Forced to “engage assistants” for his project, he researches the names of individuals who have reportedly experienced psychic phenomenon themselves, finally inviting a dozen people for an all-expenses paid summer vacation.
But when the day arrives, the number of intrepid ghost-hunters has been whittled down to two.
Misanthropic spinster Eleanor Vance, rendered especially redundant after the death of her terrible mother, whom she served as the sole caretaker, seizes the opportunity to escape from the clutches of her equally terrible sister and her family, stealing the family car after her sister and brother-in-law forbade her from going, convinced that Dr. Montague was “aiming to introduce Eleanor to savage rights not unconnected with matters Eleanor’s sister deemed it improper for an unmarried young woman to know.”
The second respondent to Dr. Montague’s invitation in the mononomanclature’d Theodora, a Greenwich Village Bohemian Artist, who impulsively takes off after an (implied) lover’s quarrel with her lady-roommate.
Rounding out the initial group is Luke Sanderson, the nephew of Hill House’s absentee inheritor, whose shadiness is eclipsed by his slothfulness; his aunt decides he’s probably too lazy to steal the family silver.
After a disquieting stop in the nearby town of Hillsdale, Eleanor finally arrives at Hill House, where the story will be told largely through her point of view. Also this seems slightly familiar:
The house was vile. She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.
The house is as creepy on the inside as it is outside: a jumble of architectural styles, including a library in a tower, and a windowless, labyrinthine interior.
Most reviewers note that the book is more unsettling than it is scary… and a large part of that is the fact that the characters don’t behave the way the author says they do. Eleanor is introduced as a neurotic malcontent (however justified that may be), but she is eager for the adventure and quickly seeks connection with the others involve in the experiment, even as she worries that they think her naïve or awkward. Similarly, we are told that Theodora is the wild nonconformist, but she becomes meeker and more conventional with each passing day; Luke is a cad and a liar, yet never behaves as less than a gentleman; Dr. Montague is a Very Serious Scientist who is going to prove his theories… but does he even take any notes? His most intellectual pursuits seems to reading Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (or, Virtue Rewarded) (Yawn). And as time passes the characters attitudes and beliefs can change over the course of a sentence- Eleanor has a crush on Theodora… unless she’s think about how she’s so obnoxious that she wants to murder her…
Adding to the layers are legends surrounding the house, about a pair of sisters, one of whom stole the other’s fiancé (and later, a set of gold-rimmed dishes); Eleanor and Theodora become fixated on the story and as the days pass seem to be re-enacting the relationship and events, with poor Luke in the middle.
And something definitely is happening, although nobody can seem to agree on what. There is a malicious poltergeist. Somebody or something is writing messages to Eleanor on the walls, first in chalk and then in… blood?
Having lived in Hill House for a week, longer than any previous inhabitants, the group is disoriented when Mrs. Montague shows up for a planned visit with her “companion”, Arthur. And for the third act, the reader is reminded that humor was the other mode Jackson is known for.
Mrs. Montague is an enthusiastic amateur spiritualist (she and Arthur seemed dropped in from a 1930’s screwball comedy) who arrives armed with various Ouija boards, ready to communicate with the many murdered nuns who have been walled up inside Hill House, immediately calling dibs on the “most haunted” bedroom (and haranguing her husband for spending the summer in what she perceives to be the absolutely least-haunted house in the country).
Another spiritual antecedent of Jackson’s story is Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, another book that is scary because it is unsettling, and leaves to the reader’s imagination what (if anything) is happening. So it isn’t until late in the novel that it becomes clear to some of the characters that something has gone terribly wrong with Eleanor, perhaps that she has forged a sort of psychic bond with the house. Dr. Montague insists that she leave for her own good; too late do they realize her intention to smash he car at full speed into the tree at the curve in the driveway, her last thoughts:
Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Why don’t they stop me?
The book was adapted for film, as The Haunting, in both 1963 and 1999, and has surely inspired countless others, including the confusingly similarly-titled The House on Haunted Hill from impresario William Castle, starring Vincent Price and a very impressive plastic skeleton.
Availability: Book and movie both readily available through various print, media, and streaming platforms.