Some, including Stephen King, call it one of the best ghost story of the 20th century. Shirley Jackson’s “The haunting of Hill House” was first published in 1959. So far, it has been turned into two films and a play.
The novel is often called an American Gothic. Like early Gothic novelists, Shirley Jackson is interested in the effect of terror and fear, rather than exploiting horror. In many of her short stories and novels, the environment or setting and its effect upon her characters – and the reader – are important.
Hill House certainly influences people who intend to spend a few weeks there, from the very moment they see it. It is an American Victorian pile, imitation Gothic of course, surrounded by hills and several miles away from the nearest village. It has a reputation: people who rent it, leave well before the end of their contract and most refuse to discuss why.
Right from the very start, the reader is told that the house is “not sane“. It holds its “darkness within” and “whatever walked there, walked alone.”
A description of the house is followed by the introduction of one of the main characters: Dr John Montague. The recently published biography on Shirley Jackson maintains, she channeled her anger with her husband into her fiction. This may well be the case with professor Montague, who “… was scrupulous about the use of his title because, his investigations being so utterly unscientific, he hoped to borrow an air of respectability …” (p 7)
The description of how the professor selects his fellow guests seems ironic: “… then crossed off the names of those who seemed .. unsuitable because of a clear tendency to take the center of the stage …” (p 8). Only much later, the reader realises that “center of the stage”, or “eye of the storm”, are linked to the house as well as the supernatural events.
The second character introduced is Eleanor Vance. She is a sensitive woman with strong emotions. The professor selects her because as a teenager, she experienced poltergeist manifestations.
Theodora, the other female guest is apparently Eleanor’s opposite. The professor chooses her, because during experiments, he noticed she was able to score well above average in prediction games.
The professor’s third guest is Luke Sanderson. He is foisted upon Montague. Luke is well-educated, but has a tendency to lie, steal, and mix with the wrong kind of company. He is the nephew of Hill House’s present owner. His aunt “… would have leaped at any chance to put him safely away …” (p 12).
But it is Eleanor, who steals the car she partly owns from her sister and brother-in-law. She is the first to arrive and meet the Dudley’s. The Dudley’s are the caretakers, but return to the village each day, before dark. Mrs Dudley seems only able to repeat a litany of her chores, which serves as comic relief.
The first impression of the house is so bad, Eleanor thinks of turning back. Theodora and the others also experience strong negative feelings about it. The first night, no haunting seems to take place. The guests become acquainted with each other and the professor is persuaded to tell the house’s history, which is not good.
Throughout the story, the names of Gothic and other novels are mentioned. There is Richardson’s Pamela – or Virtue rewarded, as well as Stoker’s Dracula. The professor calls Hill House a house of Hades and the names of haunted houses and castles crop up, including Winchester House, Bordesley Abbey, and Glamis Castle.
After the first 24 hours, things start to happen. Over the next few days, the haunting increases steadily, till manifestations are no longer restricted to the dark hours. Jackson uses stock events, which are part of legends connected to haunted houses. The focal point of events becomes Eleanor.
Just before the weekend starts, the professor’s wife and a mutual friend turn up. Jackson uses them as comic relief. This may be another case of her rage being released through writing. Like Arthur, Jackson’s husband was a teacher.
The professor’s wife communicates with ghosts, but Hill House’s ghosts refuse to talk. On the other hand, Mrs Dudley becomes talkative.
By the end of the weekend, the haunting has come to a head. Eleanor seems to be controlled by whatever haunts the house and guests. The group manages to convince her to leave the house. Only then, do messages concerning Eleanor by whatever haunts the house, become clear.
Jackson cleverly exploits the stock traits of haunted houses, from cold spots to poltergeist and other manifestations. The tension slowly increases. All characters witness haunting, but each in a specific way often related to the character’s “flaw” and environment. When the story finishes, lots of clues Jackson cleverly weaves into her story, become clear.
Is this the best 20th century ghost story? This is difficult to decide. The reader is well prepared by Shirley Jackson for the outcome of this story. Other, similar ghost stories including Susan Hill’s “The Woman in Black”, or Sarah Waters’ “The Little Stranger” also seem just as good a read.
“The Haunting of Hill House”, Shirley Jackson, hard cover 205 pp, first published by Michael Joseph Ltd, 1960, London.
“Shirley Jackson, a rather haunted life”, biography by Ruth Franklin, 2016