Sunday, July 01, 2012

53. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

My wife is a big Shirley Jackson fan and has several of her books. I've been meaning to give her a try for a while now and finally got motivated since it was chosen as the July read for an online book discussion group I am in. Great choice!

The Haunting of Hill House is not the first haunted house story, but it's an early one and was quite well-respected when it came out (she also wrote the short story "The Lottery" that a lot of us read in junior high). At least two movies have been made from it. It's the story of a doctor of the paranormal who gets the opportunity to study an abandoned manor in the Britsh countryside. He invites four people, whose existence have come to his attention for their own histories of being involved in some kind of paranormal activity. One of them, Eleanor, is the character through whose viewpoint the reader follows the proceedings. She lives with her sister's family and up until recently, devoted her life to taking care of her cruel, sickly mother. For her, this "experiment" is an exciting opportunity to make a break from her old life. Things do not go well.

It's a subtle, cleverly-written book. Right away, Jackson is totally direct about how foreboding and ominous the house is. She doesn't actually describe it much. Rather, she describes how it makes Eleanor feel and allows the dialogue of the others to describe what it does to them. It is freaky, and in some creative ways too, that I won't give away. It's a slow burn after that, though. We spend a lot of time learning about the doctor and the guests, the history of the house and its geography. It takes a while for things to get weird, but they do.

There is very little objective third-person description in this book, to the point that at times I didn't realize that certain people were present in a scene until they spoke. It was odd at first, until I got that we really are seeing things through Eleanor's eyes and that, as she falls under the influence of the house (if that is indeed what happens), she becomes one of those unreliable narrators.

It's a dark, nasty book. She does a great job of writing catty, underhanded, passive-aggressive dialogue. I didn't realize she was American at first, because the book takes place in England. Her prose is strong, with longer sentences, but they are very linear and lack some of the more intricately structured phrasing that I like in my British authors. And scary, I don't know how it will affect others, but I wasn't scared at all for almost the first two-thirds but then one thing happened and I was reading it in my room alone, with only one light on and I really got quite scared, to the point that I had to will myself to go down the stairs to the front door and make sure it was locked! So, your mileage may vary, but I got a serious chill from this book. I'll definitely add Shirley Jackson to my list.


D.A. Trappert said...
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D.A. Trappert said...

You should try "We Have Always Lived in the Castle." Also very good. There is even a Library of America volume of Jackson that includes it, Hill House, other novels, and short stories. Of the two movie adaptations, the first by Robert Wise is an all-time classic. The second one is a travesty.

OlmanFeelyus said...

Thanks for the suggestions, D.A. I'll keep them in mind. I was already going to watch the first movie. Didn't realize it was Robert Wise. Sounds great.