Thursday, March 10, 2011

Book Thievery #5: "The Haunting of Hill House" by Shirley Jackson

I read "The Haunting of Hill House" as a deliberate attempt to set out and read, digest, and appreciate good horror. However, I did not find exactly what I expected.

"Hill House" is an incredibly well-written book, and highly... spookifying. Of course, one could expect nothing less, considering that Shirley Jackson is the author of "The Lottery" - a rather terrifyingly disturbing short story they had my class read in - I believe it was - elementary school. However, I was not exactly terrified by "Hill House," although I think I could have been; my lack of terror is explained, I suspect, by the fact that I read the book while enjoying a pint of Mill Street Brewery's Lemon Tea beer, with two cuddly pugs on my lap and a fuzzy cat on my head.

Not, you could say, an environment conducive to being frightened.

But, should I have been reading this in, say, my grandfather's cottage in Gatineau - with its Catholic shrines in the nearby woods and truly awful amounts of seaweed about - I'm sure I would've lost my head. Here is why:

1. Animate houses: Things are so rarely effectively "animated" - i.e., brought to life, though still possessing their thingness (as opposed to, say, golems in fantasy) - as Jackson's Hill House is. That thing becomes a monster. Not some aspect of the house, mind you; not some room, and neither some particular spirit that lies in wait. The house itself - from the very first moment Eleanor, the main character, catches sight of it - is evil. It is also sorrowful, ancient, and lonely. Hill House is truly a character in this novel - in fact, I would argue it is the protagonist - with a highly articulated personality, very specific actions, and a notion for quite awful strategy. And... that's awesome.

2. Phenomena: From reading so much fantasy of late, I am very used to "grittiness:" fantastic elements that seem real, plausible, and believable; elements that are without doubt part and parcel of the world in which I read. Contrarily, "Hill House" espoused many events that were intangible and unreal, or phenomena that appeared for a time and then faded. As certain characters seemed privy to only certain phenomena - and were loathe to discuss their visions with their peers - the sense of mystery was heightened. The sense of "phenomena" - of things happening or seeming to be happening, but of whose truly happening we cannot be entirely certain - was fantastic in this book. I fully intend to make off with this literary device and never return. Because it's pretty darn scary.

3. The inhumanity: In "Hill House," there is a definite sense that one character is "broken" because they are weakest. Early on, I experienced definite and excellent chills as this character partly invented her life story, and partly incorporated elements of her surroundings into it; and then saw this life-story crumble. The horror of that was considerably stronger than any hauntings in Hill House. Indeed, there is a strong sense of injustice in "Hill House," which is nonetheless fully vindicated and borne out by the characters. The inhumanity is, indeed, endemic; and it is this true-to-lifeness that makes "Hill House" as scary as it is.

"The Haunting of Hill House" is a deep book; it is much more than "horror," I think. I was much less scared by it than I expected, but I was nonetheless very chilled; and I suspect that a more authentically tragic horror story will be hard to find. I recommend it to anyone who wants to read a good book, whether or not they want to read good horror; I was transfixed - I had to know - from the beginning to the end of this tale, and that's the very best kind of book to read - genre conventions all aside.



  1. Great review. Now, go read what Stephen King says about it in his book, DANSE MACABRE. I loved this book, and it's been too long since I read it.

  2. I tried to read this book for my Gothic Lit class, but overall I didn't find myself as engrossed by it as I was by everything else we read. Like, at times I thought "this is a clever way of going about such-and-such," but as a story I didn't really feel invested in it. I think I mainly just didn't like any of the characters. (But maybe that was the point?)

  3. I think I was honestly gripped the whole time... I found the characters very real. I was somewhat dissatisfied with the ending, and felt there could have been a more exciting paranormal element toward the end... although, the "picnic" scene was pretty horrifying.

    But, that's the way with books: some are going to grip you, others won't. Makes reviewing books like this pretty pointless, but that's why this series is all about book thievery: ripping the best elements from every book I read! :P