The Haunting Of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

the-haunting-of-hill-house-by-shirley-jackson cover imageGenre: Horror
Publisher: Penguin
Published: 1959
Reviewer Rating: fivestars
Book Review by Paul Kane

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Regardless of the quality of Jan (Speed) De Bont’s big-budget interpretation — a film I have not yet seen and probably never will — the hype surrounding The Haunting last year did have a notable plus side. It allowed Shirley Jackson’s original 1959 source (first filmed by the magnificent Robert Wise) to be reissued in a glossy new package, and consequently a whole new generation to discover its timeless terror.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it revolves around an isolated house built by a religious zealot called Hugh Crain eighty years previously, and which claimed its first victim, his young bride, even before she’d clapped eyes on the place – her carriage overturning ‘accidentally’ in the driveway. The architectural equivalent of a “crazy house at the carnival” with its Byzantine layout and impossible angles, the abode – so called because it is surrounded by rolling hills – his either driven all of its occupants out, or driven them insane.

The perfect location for an academic interested in the paranormal to conduct his research, inviting those who’ve experienced psychic phenomenon in the past to join him. Unfortunately only two people answer Dr Montague’s call: Eleanor Vance, a shy, naive woman who has looked after her mother until her recent death, and has been bullied by her sister and brother-in-law for just as long; And Theodora, a confident extrovert from the city, who slinks about the place like an over-sized black cat. Along for the ride as well is the future owner of the house, Luke Sanderson, a cheeky con artist, thief and ladies’ man. An odd combination you might think, and yet all four will be brought together by the events at Hill House – the bangings in the night, icy coldness in some parts of the house, messages written in chalk and blood on the walls, the strange voices calling to them – and each visitor will be changed irrevocably by their stay, both emotionally and mentally. As Dr Montague himself is forced to admit: “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.” And he just happens to have picked the baddest of them all.

Hardly dated in the slightest, this novel, considered by some to be the definitive haunted house story, has lost none of its power over the years. Evil simmers just below the surface of every page, and though it takes a while to get going, the build-up proves to be invaluable, acquainting us with each character individually and instilling in the reader an almost palpable sense of paranoia and dread. However, the tale is told predominately through Eleanor’s eyes, who travels to Hill House seeking excitement and adventure (“journeys end in lovers meeting” she keeps repeating to herself over and over) only to end up in an even worse predicament than the one she’s escaped from; the main irony being that just as she’s finding a personality she can call her own, she starts to lose herself again to this spooky house.

But the tension, at times almost unbearable (comparable to being in a dentist’s waiting room, according to one character), is cleverly countervailed by dry wit, often emerging when you least expect it. And the introduction of Montague’s wife near the end — a hammish, overbearing shrew who arrives to “talk to the lost souls” — is a stroke of pure genius, adding a fresh voice to the mix (two if you count her headmaster companion, Arthur) at just the right time.

Creepy, unnerving and brimming over with atmosphere, if any book deserves a make over like this it’s Jackson’s tour de force chiller. Believe me when I say, this is one haunting that’ll have you heading for the hills.

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