With “The Haunting of Hill House,” Shirley Jackson is often credited with having set the standard for Gothic haunted house stories and rightly so. Dr. Montague, with a questionably morbid curiosity that readers of the genre have come to take for granted in its necessity for creating the backbone of why any of the characters are there, wants to investigate Hill House. Enter the invitees by application, Theodora, a vivacious woman, a possible telepath, who presents as being social and confident if not to the point of being intimidating in her ability to charm. We are uncertain if Theodora has any real interest in being there as such women are, it could all just be a lark for her, a non-plussed adventure because, well, what else was there to do, and something exciting could happen. Luke, the heir to Hill House who provides arrogant annoyance, dipped in occasional smarm, and the impetus for a romantic rivalry and competitiveness for his attention. And Eleanor, a potential “sensitive” who experienced unexplained phenomena during her youth and who, after many isolated by years of caring for her ailing mother, has become even more hyper aware of the underpinnings of the thinking of those around her and yet, strangely unable to read them accurately at times as the same isolation has created in her a modicum of self doubt. This is perhaps the most important element in the story for everything hinges on Eleanor’s grasp on reality.
Shirley Jackson slowly draws us into the inner workings of the mind for what is an empty house but a hull waiting to be filled, its character drawn out by whomever crosses its threshold. The history of Hill House is revealed to us with all of the prerequisite mysterious deaths of the past presented in properly macabre shadings so as to set the standard and establish the cliche but what is different about this book is that direct address of that cliche as it throws the door wide open for the possibility that these guests won’t be scared by it all for they do know that they have entered a “haunted house” to begin with. What is then illustrated to us is how the perspective of one person can color the landscape as it is Eleanor who lends herself to the haunting in her awareness of it and while it begins to seem at moments that perhaps she is being toyed with, the other side of that coin is that Eleanor has become an unwitting accomplice to the ghosts of the past in Hill House as it is she who is actually the most powerful of all the guests and yet made weak somehow in her lack of awareness as to that fact.
Such is the definitive nature of the haunted house story and here is where and why this book is considered by many to have set the standard, because there’s no such thing as ghosts, silly, and we as readers, while willing to accept a certain level of fantasy as reality going in, knowing that we are reading a story and are wanting still something plausible to take us all the way there and keep us from setting aside the book until its end. That something is the potential of madness but that too must be made believable, understandable, we must be able to relate to it so that by the time we get to the more fantastical elements of the story, we are all in. Shirley Jackson provides everything on the checklist, creepy old house with previous mysterious deaths, strange caretakers who are laughable and laughed at in their rigidity, because you won’t be laughing later because they know what you don’t. Dinner is set when it is set. Mrs. Dudley will clear the dishes in the morning. Dr. Montague himself is nothing less than a cliche of the ever curious, over intellectualized…intellectual…who finds that he must play with the fire of a supernatural mystery as what is left in the regular world that would be so interesting as watching his three chosen specimens squirm. Jackson creates a microcosm of society within the walls of Hill House with these few characters and we believe and wonder because we think we know the “type.” However this is done so skillfully, with an obviousness that becomes subtle as it turns in on itself, that the reader is unaware of what it is that they have been pulled into, it’s just a haunted house story, after all, one that you won’t be able to let go of.
Hill House is a killer lying in wait, getting to know its intended victims by allowing them to think that they are getting to know it. Jackson takes us inside the catacombs of Eleanor’s mind, layering the story with altered perspectives and slowly deteriorating perceptions. Is it the house or is it Eleanor? Is it an elaborate prank gone wrong perhaps perpetrated on Eleanor in all of her longing? Why does Eleanor ignore her initial instinct that she should flee? Because she wants what somewhere deep in each of us we all want, or think that we do, a place to belong, a place to call home and people to belong there with. With the steady refrain through Eleanor’s thinking of a line from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” we are drawn into the power of Eleanor’s secret hope, “Journey’s end in lovers meeting” and the unfolding of her potential destiny as a permanent resident of the world of Hill House.
A perfect story for Halloween reading!
From Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night
The Clown, Singing…
O mistress mine, where are you roaming,
O stay and hear, your true love’s coming,
That can sing both high and low,
Trip no further, pretty sweeting,
Journeys end in lovers meeting,
Every wise man’s son doth know
What is love? tis not hereafter,
Present mirth hath present laughter,
What’s to come is still unsure,
In delay there lies no plenty,
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty,
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.