Most readers remember Shirley Jackson from her short story “The Lottery,” one of the most famous American short stories and one that stayed with me long past the school reading assignment. It has taken me an absurdly long time to dive into her novels, but now that I have, I’m completely hooked. I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle this summer and completely adored it, but it was her quintessential haunted house novel The Haunting of Hill House that seemed the perfect fit for this season. In this blend of psychological thriller and good, old-fashioned, things-go-bump-in-the-night scares, Jackson proves herself to be a crucial influence in the modern horror landscape.
Published in 1959, The Haunting of Hill House is a classic haunted house story. It begins with Dr. Montegue, a scientist studying paranormal activity. He is particularly interested in Hill House, which has garnered itself a reputation as a place where no one can stay for long, and invites three guests to stay with him for the summer and take notes on their experiences: Luke, the young man who will one day inherit Hill House; Theodora, a young woman with an apparent telepathic talent; and Eleanor, who is eager to begin a new life after having spent years caring for her dying mother. The story is told through Eleanor’s point of view, and as strange and terrifying things begin to happen in the house, they seem particularly targeted towards her. As Eleanor struggles to understand this, her guilt and insecurity begin to eat away at her, which only seems to feed the evil of the house more and more.
Jackson is a master at harnessing the reader’s imagination to create deeply unsettling scenes. So much of the horror of this book is psychological, having to do with the way Eleanor reacts to Hill House. At the same time, plenty of really creepy things seem to happen, too. Like most of my favorite horror stories, the real power lies in what the reader doesn’t see. Most of the physical terror of the story happens literally on the other side of a closed door, allowing the reader to imagine the worst.
As much as I love all of this creepy stuff, my favorite part about Jackson’s novels are the female relationships she creates, which are complicated and passionate and fraught and so honest, and a complete joy to read. When Eleanor arrives at Hill House, Theodora is the first one to follow, and the two bond almost instantly. They explore the grounds, laughing and joking about the terrors they might encounter, but for Eleanor, there is an undercurrent of fear in her joking that she worries Theodora doesn’t share. Then: “Unexpectedly–although it was later to become a familiar note, a recognizable attribute of what was to mean ‘Theodora’ in Eleanor’s mind–Theodora caught at Eleanor’s thought, and answered her. ‘Don’t be so afraid all the time,’ she said and reached out to touch Eleanor’s cheek with one finger. ‘We never know where our courage is coming from.'”
The relationship between Eleanor and Theodora could be read as an intimate friendship, born of the strange circumstances, but it seems to me impossible to not read romance in it, as well (and coincidentally, an article just published today on Book Riot agrees with me). As the house eats away at Eleanor, her emotions and temperament rise and fall, and without fail, her most passionate feelings, both hatred and longing, are directed towards Theodora. As captivating as the thrills and terror of the story are, it was this relationship that kept me turning the pages above all else. It is compelling and beautiful and, at times, heartbreaking. (Also, a completely delightful surprise in the midst of my haunted house book.)
The Haunting of Hill House is my favorite book of the season thus far. It was both terrifying and emotionally enthralling. The writing is beautiful, the characters are lively and interesting, and the setting does not at all disappoint. Jackson has definitely become one of my favorite writers, and I could see myself enjoying this book every year when the weather begins to get a little bit colder, and the wind picks up and makes the house shudder and creak.