Book Review: “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson

When you’re on Amazon, or Goodreads, or iTunes do you tend to explore the “if you liked x, you might like y” suggestions?  It was because of this feature that I came across the audiobook of Shirley Jackson’s horror story The Haunting of Hill House.  Of course, I’d heard of it before and it had always been one of those classic stories that I’d been meaning to get around to.  Well, okay iTunes – thanks for the prompt.  I’ll try it.

The Haunting of Hill House is widely considered one of the great horror novels of the 20th century.  In it, lonely single Eleanor Vance is recruited by a parapsychologist to join a few others in investigating the goings-on at a fabled haunted mansion, Hill House.  The team – the invesitigator Doctor Montague, another “sensitive” Theodora, and a member of the house’s owning family agree to stay in the house and make observations in the hopes of documenting paranormal activity.

As horror stories go, the events that take place in Hill House are more about psychological terror than what I think most people would consider horror – and by today’s standards, it’d downright tame.  But that’s not really where Jackson’s novel comes up short for me.

The Haunting of Hill House

Now, some books are classics because they’re excellent and some books are classic because they break new ground – and just maybe, they don’t hold up too well over time.  To me, Hill House is that latter sort of classic.  The story is mostly related through Eleanor’s eyes and she is hardly the picture of a modern (the story was published in 1959) female protagonist.  Eleanor is a timid mouse of a women – who doesn’t need a haunted house to be a nervous Nellie – she’s practically afraid of her own shadow.  Theodora is supposed to be the more “modern” woman, but her brazenness is a show and she’s really just a tender flower, too. The male characters were fairly two dimensional.

In the end, this is a pretty decent ghost story that gets kudos for breaking some ground back in the day.  I really wanted to like it, because I love haunted house stories.  Sadly, it just couldn’t get past the handicap of its stilted dialog and characters.

2 stars out of 5

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9 thoughts on “Book Review: “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson

  1. To be honest, I have *noticed* those if you like x, you’ll like y and what I’ve found is it’s TOTALLY OFF. I believe they’re either promoting the same tripe for everybody, they’re accepting bribes (they’re really ads) OR their criteria for “you’ll like” is extremely broad. Extremely. As in “genre.”

  2. Steve, you’ve written yet another review where I want to go back and re-read a book. I read “The Haunting of Hill House” when I was a teenager, and I loved the way Jackson evoked the creepiness of a haunted mansion. She had her own peculiar style of writing however, and in time I found it dated and somewhat clunky. (“We Have Always Lived in the Castle” is a little better, but it’s more of a Gothic story similar to her short story “The Lottery.”)

    That said, I find it funny that 50 years after Jackson wrote “Hill House,” we now have reality shows featuring paranormal investigators who tromp through allegedly haunted houses, looking for scientific evidence of ghosts. Most of them have been spectacular failures at finding real ghosts: the investigators spend more time jumping up and screaming, “What was that?” at every little bump and sigh. Which I find sad: I want them to convince me there are really ghosts out there. Kind of like The X-Files, I want to believe.

  3. I read and reread The Haunting of Hill House as a teenager and I remember it as the scariest book I had ever read. The psychology of it really got to me. The thought that a ghost/evil presence would not physically hurt someone, but cause them to hurt themselves. It would prod and pry and seep it’s way into her weaknesses.
    I remember having to take the book from my bedroom and go downstairs and read it in the familyroom with my parents because I didn’t want to be alone whilst reading it.

    I most vividly remember the night that Theodora and Nell jumped into the same bed when the Presence started pounding on the bedroom doors up and down the hall with what sounded like a bowling ball. And Jackson describing the terror that Nell was feeling, how she held Theodora’s hand so tightly that she could feel all the bones.
    Then Nell couldn’t stand it anymore and screamed out for the thing to “Stop It!” Theodora sat up sleepily saying “What is it? What’s happening, Nell?”
    And Nell flew out of the bed and huddled against the wall saying “God god god god, whose hand was I holding?”

    Lol. It may have been 30 years since I read The Haunting of Hill House, so I may have dis-membered exactly how that scene went. But, hearing the name of the book still gives me shivers…and you know what? I don’t think I will reread it and find it dated and disappointing. I’m going to remember it as the scariest book I have ever read. :)

    • Lauri — no, you remembered that scene right on — perhaps unlike the Biblical “ass”… ;) — and that was my favorite scene from the book too. Without spoilers, I also really liked the ambiguity of the ending in that Jackson lets the reader decide what caused the event at the end.

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