I’ve begun my annual reading of the scary stories, which is something I like to do every year during the Halloween season. The first book I pulled off the shelf was The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson, which I’d picked up at the used bookstore recently. I was all set for a spooky, creepy haunted house story. What I got…was something a little more extraordinary.
You see, The Haunting of Hill House doesn’t really wear its scares on its sleeve. Instead, Jackson builds suspense and tension slowly, leaving only unanswered questions instead of providing answers. She does this through masterful character development and deliberate pacing. Jackson even manages to subvert my expectations a bit, as she introduces a couple of characters toward the end of the book, and I expected certain things to happen to them. She takes things in a completely unexpected direction instead.
The story begins when Dr. Montague, Eleanor, Luke and Theodora arrive to stay at the house for a period where they’ll investigate its reported freaky occurrences. Dr. Montague has arranged the gathering, and recruited Eleanor and Theodora for events that have occurred in their past that might make them more open to paranormal phenomena. Luke is present as a member of the family that owns Hill House, which was built 80 years previously by a man named Hugh Crain.
Strange things happen, like writing appearing on the walls and terrifying noises in the night as things seem to be trying to get into their rooms. The group basically agrees that they will always stick together, especially at night, because they seem to be particularly vulnerable when separated.
It’s never really clear, though, what causes the manifestations of evil. The house itself is a character, with a wicked design that makes it impossible to find one’s way around and exerting a malevolent influence of its own. There are intimations that Eleanor might be responsible for some of the writings, and if she’s not, it’s pretty clear that something has latched onto her.
All of the horror in the book is psychological, so any reader looking for blood and guts is bound to be disappointed. But if you like a carefully crafted, ambiguous tale that leaves you yearning for just a bit more, The Haunting of Hill House is a perfectly nasty little read.