The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

I started reading the stories for the semester before the syllabus went up so the first two books I read out of order. I won’t review Hell House yet, but having read that first and then Haunting of Hill House, I found the latter to be quite tame. Then, at a bookstore, I saw that it was listed as one of the best literary ghost stories. That piqued my interest. I’m in the “Writing Popular Fiction” program at Seton Hill. We talk often of what makes something literary rather than popular. I personally have never been satisfied with the distinction. But that’s neither here nor there.

Haunting of Hill House takes longer to get into the actual ghost story. Sure, the house is creepy and designed weird but you are nearly halfway through novel by the time anything really manifests itself. And having come into the novel right after finishing Hell House, I was expecting a lot. Or that it was all Mrs. Dudley in the end pranking everyone so they’d leave the house alone. So I’ve tried to think of what I can that stuck out in my mind from this novel.

The word haunt is an interesting one. In terms of ghosts the common definition is “Manifest itself at a place regularly.” Well, by that definition, who exactly was doing the haunting? This isn’t a story about people going into a house to figure out what is causing the haunting. They’re just there to observe. So there’s no resolution in that regard. Instead, the novel ends with a traumatic event that sends everyone away. However, a case could be made that by the definition of a haunting, it is actually the characters of the novel that are doing the haunting of the house because they “frequent a place regularly.” But I know that’s not what was meant for the novel.

One thing the author did rather well is spinning the suspense. I kept expecting more to happen. But we never “see” anything. Just “Hear” the pounding and laughter. Yet, you are able to feel the tension within the characters (when you get over the old fashioned way the women act but it was written for that time period). All in all, a rather interesting start to the semester.

4 thoughts on “The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson”

  1. You have to keep in mind that the books are from two generations, and separating those two was the sixties. I bet a fair amount of literary analysis could go into determining just how much more intense novels became during that decade. Even for the seventies, I was rather surprised at the intensity of Hell House. Another big difference in these ghost stories, though, is Hill House represents the apparitions of the mind and Hell House takes on a more physical and religious struggle. Matheson often questions a reader’s perspective of the supernatural through technological explanations (I Am Legend and What Dreams May Come both serve as examples); Jackson forces the reader to question his or her inner demons.

  2. This book was a bit of a bore for me as well. I wanted to like it, but I just couldn’t get into it. I think if I re-read with the mindset that it was more about Nell’s failing metnal health, then maybe it would work. It seemed like Jackson took on odd jaunts on tangents that went nowhere and didn’t really progress the plot. However, I do agree, that when things started to happen, Jackson did pretty good with spinning suspense. Good post!

  3. I struggled to get into this one as well. I did the same as you and read Matheson first, so my mind was on a whole other level when I immediately followed up that one with this. I kept waiting for it to get darker, and it never really did.

    You bring up a good point about the associations of the word “haunt” here. I question if it fits as well. For me, the house was merely the vehicle to tell Eleanor’s story, so I was a bit disappointed by the book at the end when so few questions were resolved.

    Otherwise, I agree with you. An interesting start to the semester indeed.

  4. “Or that it was all Mrs. Dudley in the end pranking everyone so they’d leave the house alone.” When I read this part of your post, I thought of Scooby Doo. Like Scooby Doo, it was pretty tame. I was not very scared until the part about the babbling child in the bedroom. Maybe this was only because I was lying alone in my own dark bedroom. I wonder if I would have enjoyed it so much if I read it, rather than listened to it read by the voice of a creepy Englishman.

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