Book Review: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The haunted house that defined a genre.

And one of the best horror stories I’ve read in a while. The premise is simple: Dr. Montague, interested in the paranormal, invites himself and a few guests to a supposedly haunted house, to stay for a while and investigate. With him is Luke, the heir to the family and owner of the building, and Theodora and Eleanor. All with their own reasons to get away from everything for a while, they take the good doctor up on his offer.

This is the first and only thing I’ve read of Shirley Jackson, and in fact (even though I’m supposedly a fan of horror) I hadn’t heard the name until I saw the Haunting of Hill House on Netflix a few years ago. The show is of course based on this book and if you’ve seen it, you’ll be very familiar with the plot (though some of the names and characters are different and they have different relationships). The book is told from Eleanor’s perspective, a timid and careful young girl who seems utterly out of place in the midst of a gang of ghost hunters. She’s not as confident as Theodora, nor as brave as Luke.

Much of our experiences of Hill House are through Eleanor’s perceptions and thought, and this is one of the things that makes this book so frightening. Because yes, it is frightening. As horror goes, its some of the best I’ve read in a while. Some reviews I’ve seen say that this is the book’s downfall – that too much of the plot are Eleanor’s thoughts, which takes away from the terror of the house itself, but that wasn’t my experience.

It is Eleanor’s discomfort within the house and her deteriorating mental state that makes Hill House so horrifying. She begins questioning what is happening inside the house, apparently seeing and hearing things the others are not, and she drags us along for all of it.

Of course the house in and of itself is scary. Doors open and close at their own volition, the temperature drops significantly at night, and noises without a source can be heard through the hallways. Having grown up in a hundred-year-old creaky farmhouse myself, I definitely had chills running down my back more than once.

And other than showing some sign of the time it was written in (late ’50s) – with words like “oftener” which caused a stir when I tweeted about it – I really like Shirley’s writing. It’s concise and to the point, but descriptive and eerily horrible when it needs to be. Just perfect, in my eyes.

The only thing I didn’t like, was the ending – and no – I won’t tell you why.

Often cited as one of the top names in horror – even mentioned by Stephen King as one of his biggest inspirations I think – Shirley Jackson is absolutely someone you should read if you’re a fan of the genre, and the Haunting of Hill House is (probably) a great place to start (he said without having read anything else by the author).

Did you read any good horror stories lately? What’s your favorite?

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