The Haunting of Hill House is one of my favorite books. I’ve read it several times, and I have listened to it read aloud, and watched the 1963 adaptation of the book more times than I can remember.

There are several reasons why I like this book so much, and I am very enthusiastic about it. I have tried and tried to write a short review here, but I have found that impossible. There is simply too much to be said about the story. I realize that there is a lot competing for your attention out there, but I hope you will find the time to read this review nonetheless.

If you have read this book before, I hope that my observations will encourage you to reassess your own interpretation of the book, and perhaps get you to read it again. If you have not read it, I have attempted to avoid writing a spoiler here. You can read this review and still enjoy the book, and hopefully even more so.

One of the basic things I like about The Haunting is Jackson’s writing style; it is clear, unpretentious, and easy to read. She never tries to impress the reader with her cleverness or extensive vocabulary. She simply writes what needs to be written without pretense or complication. Also, the style is very feminine and intuitive. She does not always state her conclusions or observations directly, but rather allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. I do not think a man would have written this story in the same way.

Additionally, she avoids unnecessary detail or description that is not fundamental to the story or thematic development. For example, when Eleanor leaves her sister’s apartment with a suitcase and a box of all her belongings, Jackson does not go into detail about what those belongings are, because it is not important. Not all writers are willing to do that. Some would have listed a boring description of every single item she had, partially to fill space, and partially because they felt that such a description would enhance the character development. But here it is not necessary that we know those things. We can suppose what those things might be, and that is good enough. I guess that is what I mean by saying her style is somewhat intuitive. We can use empathy and intuition to fill in the blanks when needed.

Most impressively though, is the fact that so much of the story—so much of what we know about Eleanor—all takes place inside Eleanor’s head. We literally get to read Eleanor’s thoughts throughout the book, which she does not always share with the other characters. This makes the book very intimate and personal.

I really like Jackson’s character development. They are all flawed people, with distinct personalities, frailties, and emotions (some more so than others). They are not, as is often the case with many writers, larger than life. They are very human, and I think our ability to get inside Eleanor’s head is fundamental to our ability to develop empathy with her.

The Haunting is a mysterious and intriguing story from the beginning. Basically, four people spend the summer in a haunted house, weird things happen, and it all ends in tragedy.

But is the house really haunted? Jackson never really says for sure, and in fact, she seems to deliberately write in contradictory evidence that never leaves a clear answer (which I think is part of the magic of the book). In some ways, we are inclined to believe that the house is actually alive, that it has gained sentience, albeit a malevolent sentience; that the house wants to consume its new occupants, as it has with past occupants. This is clearly implied.

Yet, there is ample evidence to support that there is in fact a ghost; a lost human soul, or souls, that pound on doors, write on walls, and walk through the grass outdoors. But if this is the case, there is no logical reason to assume that the house is both haunted and sentient, yet we still cannot fully discredit the house-sentience theory. If it is haunted, why must the ghost pound on doors and walls? Why can’t it just enter the room of its own free will (as it does in a later scene I will not reveal here)? We simply do not know, and Jackson never tells us. (Again, I think a male writer would have attempted to offer an explanation in order to show the reader how clever he was.)

Or if the house is sentient, how is it that it can make human noises and write in English on its own walls?

Lastly, it could be that neither of these above theories is correct. A less overt but equally possible theory is that there is really nothing supernatural going on, but instead the house acts somehow as a conduit or amplifier for human emotion, angst, or despair. I put forth this theory because of the obvious parallels between Eleanor’s insecurities and inner guilt over the death of the mother, and the actual manifest phenomenon inside the house itself.

We know that her mother died while knocking on the wall for Eleanor to come help her, and the first manifestation or disturbance in the house is a knocking on the walls. It is when Eleanor begins to get mad at Theo that Theo’s clothes get smeared with blood and the writing on her wall appears. Additionally, we know that Eleanor wants to stay at Hill House, and the manifestations inside the house seem to indicate that it too wants her to stay. Nor should we overlook the fact that all the paranormal activity seems to focus around Eleanor herself. (There are other scenes in the book which support this theory, like the first night that Nell and Theo spend together in the same room, or when three of them go down to the brook towards the end of the book. But I don’t want to give them away by telling what happens.)

In any of these cases though, we might well ask: Why does the action seem to center around Eleanor? Well, in my opinion, it is because she is the weakest and most incomplete person. She has spent her adult life caring for her invalid mother. Unlike the others, she owns nothing, she’s experienced nothing, she’s achieved nothing, and she has no one to care for or to care about. She doesn’t even know who she is. In any of these three theories presented, she is obviously the most vulnerable to their influences.

As in most stories, there is a theme that lies behind the plot of this story. In this case there are two that I am aware of.

First the story could be seen as a metaphor for the role of women in our society, and how the man-made world consumes them. For example, we have a house (all houses/homes) that was financed and built by a man (all men), that has consumed and destroyed (through domestication and servitude) the lives of its women inhabitants (all women). This is a recurring phenomenon: the two Mrs. Crains, the Crain sisters, the paid companion, and now Eleanor. Considering this was written by a woman at the onset of the feminist revolution, I don’t think it is a stretch to see this underlying metaphor in the story.

The most prominent theme though is that of women and the complicated relationships between them. This book is literally dominated by women. Men appear in the book, but they take very minor roles, with only two of them having any real importance to the plot. Three, if you include Hugh Crain who built Hill House.

The focus of the action, the dialogue, and the history revolve around women and their relationships: Eleanor and her mother, Eleanor and her sister, Eleanor and the lady she knocks down, Eleanor and the girl at the mill, the girl at the mill and her mother, the mother and the waitress, Eleanor and the waitress at the second diner, Eleanor and Theo, The Crain sisters, old Missus Crain and her paid companion, Theo and Mrs. Dudley, Mrs. Dudley and Mrs. Montague.

There are also interesting coincidences and parallels in the relationships throughout the book, like that between Eleanor and her mother, and that between old Missus Crain and her paid companion; same between Eleanor and her sister, and Eleanor and Theo. Both Eleanor and Theo left home for the summer on bad terms with those they left behind, and once at Hill House, the two of them begin to fight and bicker just like the Crain sister did in the past.

Why Jackson chose to focus on women and their diverse relationships, I can’t really say. In almost all of them though, the relationship is strained; there is always tension brewing between them. Often, the women are competitive, unforgiving, and downright nasty to one another. Perhaps this was true in Jackson’s life, and she was simply writing from her own experiences.

As you can tell, I really, really like this book. It is very intriguing and multi-dimensional, and you never feel as though you completely understand the plot or the thematic development. Perhaps that is why I can’t let it go. I hope you read it, and I hope you enjoy it. If you came to different conclusions than I have, please let me know.

Tags: Shirley Jackson, fiction, ghost, haunting, supernatural

Views: 25

Replies to This Discussion

Thanx Dallas, another I will have to read this winter! Sounds fantastic!
I JUST posted this? How did you read it so fast?
Sounds great... looking forward to reading this.
Amazingly enough, they don't have any copies of the book at any of the libraries in this whole town. So I'll have to try to find it somewhere else...


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