The Haunting of Hill House (Penguin Modern Classics) Paperback – 1 Oct 2009
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Stepping into Hill House is like stepping into the mind of a madman; it isn't long before you weird yourself out (Stephen King)
An amazing writer ... If you haven't read We Have Always Lived in the Castle or The Haunting of Hill House or any of her short stories you have missed out on something marvellous (Neil Gaiman)
The world of Shirley Jackson is eerie and unforgettable ... She is a true master (A. M. Homes)
One of the twentieth century's most luminous and strange American writers (Jonathan Lethem)
Her books penetrate keenly to the terrible truths which sometimes hide behind comfortable fictions, to the treachery beneath cheery neighborhood faces and the plain manners of country folk (Donna Tartt)
She is the finest master...of the cryptic, haunted tale (The New York Times Book Review)
A novel which at one stroke puts her unquestionably among the great masters of the genre . . . as spine-chilling . . . as anything Edgar Allan Poe dreamed up. (Peter Green Daily Telegraph)
About the Author
Shirley Jackson was born in California in 1916. When her short story The Lottery was first published in the New Yorker in 1948, readers were so horrified they sent her hate mail; it has since become one of the most iconic American stories of all time. Her first novel, The Road Through the Wall, was published in the same year and was followed by Hangsaman, The Bird's Nest, The Sundial, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, widely seen as her masterpiece. In addition to her dark, brilliant novels, she wrote lightly fictionalized magazine pieces about family life with her four children and her husband, the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. Shirley Jackson died in 1965.
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The characters are so superbly written. Mr and Mrs Dudley unnerved me from the get go. Through them you just knew instantly that strange things were afoot at Hill House. This living, breathing building got to me the way it got to Dr. Montague, Luke, Theo and Eleanor and even though I predicted how the story was going to end, I found myself shocked nevertheless.
The Haunting of Hill House pulls you along in its own, addictive way. It's takes you on a journey. At times it is so fast that you want to slow down and other times, it puts the breaks on and you beg to go faster, but one thing is for sure, once it has you, you have no choice but to ride on until the very end.
I am no doubt going too far in invoking Alice by way of a comparison, but the parallel is not ridiculous. For pacing of the plot, for evocation of atmosphere, for vivid character drawing and for sheer fantasy that never loses its focus, the Haunting of Hill House is a little masterpiece. The plot line puts the films to shame, I think, above all in its firm and clear conclusion, a far cry from the sloppy efforts in the films. We need to be within sight of the end before we can really appreciate how the environment has gradually enfolded Eleanor in something like the way that the pack of cards built itself round Alice.
Whether this can be called a horror story or a gothic novel I very much doubt. It might be said to suggest Lovecraft to a certain extent. Lovecraft has talent without much self-discipline, but Shirley Jackson is firmly in control all the way through. Nor are the effects sickening, a characteristic I sadly associate with Steven King. There is no gore whatsoever, not even on the violent last page, and if I have to cite any kind of parallel along this other axis I might try M R James, although I doubt that he would have been capable of developing a story to anything like this extent. More realistically perhaps, this tale evokes an era, the era of F Marion Crawford, Mrs Oliphant, Mrs Belloc Lowndes and other sadly forgotten practitioners of a similar craft.
For all that, the atmosphere is chilling in the literary sense, a worthy concomitant to the ghastly chill evoked in the narration itself. It all held my attention without deviation, unless perhaps when the main outline of the story has become fully clear some 5-10 pages from the envoi. That may just have reflected impatience on my part, but even then I did not expect the final touch, perhaps recalling the hugely inferior efforts at that in the films.
If I have not made it clear that I recommend this book then I suppose that I have no gift for recommendation. Do read it if you have any taste for this sort of thing, and especially if your recollection is still taken up with the films.
Together with the layabout Luke Sanderson, heir in waiting to inherit the house, social butterfly and artistic free spirit Theodora, Eleanor feels both a sense of displacement and belonging with this sudden mismatched clique. Eleanor is a sorry character, who at 32, is something of a spinster with missed opportunities, having spent much of her years looking after her sick and abusive mother, who had just passed on recently. That is not a politically incorrect thing to say about her in the context of the period in which the book was written and set. We also pity her for her being valued much less than the car she shares with her sister and brother-in-law quite early on in the book when she asks to use the car to get to Hill House.
The writing is disturbingly disjointed - I am not sure if the dialogue and feelings conveyed by the characters were meant to feel so disconnected, but it did give me a sense of watching an old reel of black and white film on an ancient projector that flickers and jumps, distorting the flow of conversation and action in the text. Perhaps that was the horror I was supposed to feel. There was much potential at the start with all the ominous warnings and signs by the misanthropic caretaker and his wife, the Dudleys, that portents what could possibly happen when dusk came, but when it finally did, nothing much really happens besides some loud knocks and doors that just refuse to stay opened.
What a letdown.
We share some terrifying and confusing experiences with these four “investigators”. After dark, the house and grounds produce nightmarish knocking and visual hallucinations. Humour is provided by the demanding spiritualist wife of Doctor Montague, who strangely enough experiences none of the phenomena that rocks the sanity of the Doctor and his guests. It’s frightening at times and very clever indeed.