Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Book review: THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, New York: Penguin Books, ©1959

“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 darkness within; it had stood so 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.”

I was about 2/3 reading Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Though I admit I find it quite dreary and boring, it was tiring me to scan blocks of text and the drama was not stirring me anymore. So I downloaded another batch of eBooks, started reading Shirley Jackson's horror novel The Haunting of Hill House yesterday. I just finished it moments ago. You may be familiar with the author's name, as she wrote the short story The Lottery which is studied in English classes. Her book We have always lived in the Castle is on my list of favorite books ever.

You can call a book truly horror if you get scared staying alone in your room, and you may find it funny but it happened to me. The four protagonists and occupants of Hill House were experiencing the first of many hauntings during their stay. I was scared stiff in my own room (I'm the only person in the first floor of our house) that I went upstairs and slept with other people because my imagination would scare me that maybe I won't fall asleep. Truly, it's not physical monsters and seen ghosts that scare us. Its the creeping unknown that haunts the Hill House.

A certain Dr. Montague is a scientific investigator of all things psychic, supernatural, and haunted. He discovers and stays in a "haunted" house called Hill House, unoccupied for decades. For his study, he enlists the help of others who have somehow had a haunting or supernatural experience. His three guests in Hill House include Theodora, cast out by a roommate due to an argument; Eleanor, staying with her sister after her mother's death; and Luke, the house's future heir and placed there by the legal owner (his aunt) as an agreement during Dr. Montague's stay.

The story is told through the eyes of Eleanor Vance, a lonely woman. She is 32 years old, and staying with her sister for 3 months. Before that, the sick mother she had taken care of for 11 years died. She got an invitation from Dr. Montague and decided to go to Hill House, thinking it would be a nice place to spend summer and escape the married sister she dislikes.

Eleanor is first described as friendless, and resenting the years wasted taking care of her mother. She finds friends in the other guests of hill house. She is drawn closest to Theodora, who is livelier than her. They form a bond, explore the house and its surroundings, and they are together when the inexplicable hauntings arrive. There is an unknown force trying to get in the locked door, bloody words on the walls calling out for Eleanor, and someone whispering or singing or laughing in the next room. Eleanor falls for Theodora (that's how I interpreted it),  but gets rejected. She has an overactive imagination, and tells everyone a lie about where she came from. She tells them she lives alone, when in fact she lives with her sister.
“She could not remember ever being truly happy in her adult life; her years with her mother had been built up devotedly around small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness, and unending despair. Without ever wanting to become reserved and shy, she had spent so long alone, with no one to love, that it was difficult for her to talk, even casually, to another person without self-consciousness and an awkward inability to find words.”  
"I don't understand." Theodora threw down her pencil in exasperation. "Do you always go where you're not wanted?" Eleanor smiled placidly. "I've never been wanted anywhere," she said.
Hill House itself is described as a dreadful and "unright" place. People could get lost in it, the angles are all wrong on purpose, and doors you open close by themselves.
“All I could think of when I got a look at the place from the outside was what fun it would be to stand out there and watch it burn down.” 
Dr. Montague has researched the history of the house. It was built by Hugh Crain for his family, a wife and two daughters. Tragedy strikes, his wife dies before they set foot in the house, and his two other wives after her also died tragic deaths in the house. The two daughters grow up and fight over the house, the older giving it to her caretaker, and the younger sister grew obsessed with taking back the house until she died.

Ghosts are not seen, and it seems as if the house itself has dreadful evil.
"...What really frightens people so?"
"I will not put a name to what has no name."
Soon, Eleanor's sanity gets hazy due to the hauntings in the house. Her companions conclude that she should leave for her own health, but Eleanor has grown attached to the house. The book's tragic end leaves the question of the house unsolved. I feel so much sympathy for Eleanor.

This is a good read for those looking for short, spooky books that deliver horror effectively. For me, this quote from Caitlin Kiernan's The Drowning Girl (an author who is also inspired by Shirley Jackson) accurately describes truly effective horror:

"It isn't the known we fear most. The known, no matter how perilous to life and limb, is something we can wrap our brains around. We can always respond to the known. We can draw plans against it. We can learn its weaknesses and defeat it. We can recover from its assaults. So simple as a thing as a bullet might suffice. But the unknown, it slips through our fingers, as insubstantial as fog."

This book made me love Shirley Jackson's writing even more and now I'm looking forward to read her other works. No one writes horror like her.

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