Dec 14 2020

The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

I don’t know whether the authors invited to write companion essays to classic novels have any say in the placement of their pieces in relation to the main text, but God Almighty, is it irritating to read a spoiler-filled introduction by Laura Miller when at least Jonathan Lethem’s smug thoughts on We Have Always Lived In The Castle had the sense to come at the end of that particular volume.

But to Shirley Jackson’s classic haunted house novel, that I’d put off reading for years because I saw the terrible 1999 movie adaptation and figured that that was all there was to know about it (yes, I know, I’m sorry, but having stayed away from this book for so long has been punishment enough.) After finally reading The Haunting Of Hill House, I am genuinely baffled by why anyone would change a thing about the plot when it is so wonderful and bizarre as is. Dr John Montague, an anthropologist with an interest in the paranormal, has decided to make a scientific study of Hill House, a secluded mansion with strange architecture and a sad, almost sinister history. To this end, he tries to track down a number of people with proven connections to prior paranormal activity, inviting them to join him in a summer of research at the mansion. Only two people accept: Eleanor Vance, whose home had been bedeviled by a poltergeist when she was a teenager, and Theodora (no last name), whose ability to guess the face value of a number of cards held by a research assistant in another room far exceeded statistical probabilities. Rounding out the party is handsome, feckless Luke Sanderson, nephew of the absentee owner who insisted that a member of her family be present for the study. Hill House is tended to by a married couple, the gloomy Dudleys: he keeps the gate and grounds while she deals with the house itself, but neither will stay on the estate a moment past sunset.

Eleanor is our viewpoint character, a meek woman of 32 who nursed her domineering mother through an illness that lasted over a decade. After her mother’s death, she went to live with her married sister, trading one position of servitude for another. Getting the invitation is like a lifeline to something new and different, a chance to be something other than a nursemaid or poor relation for once. Her long drive to Hill House is filled with imaginings of a small home of her own, where she tends to stone lions and is tended to in turn by a small elderly maid, only the first metaphor in this book for a longed-for kindly maternal figure. Arriving at Hill House itself is a shock: even aside from the ghastly Dudleys, the house itself emanates an aura of brooding and madness.

Things are livened considerably by Theo’s arrival. She and Eleanor fall all over each other like best chums, with John as their benevolent father and Luke as the man they both rather idly flirt with. But as inexplicable things begin to happen, as the house begins to display the many reasons it’s considered haunted, their relationship frays and mends and frays again. The arrival of John’s overbearing wife Jane and her parapsychologist colleague Arthur finally overwhelms Eleanor’s psyche, leading to the ambiguous ending.

I say “ambiguous” but I think it’s pretty clear what happened to Eleanor, tho Ms Jackson certainly has little interest in spelling out things for her readers. This is par for the course with other literary works of her time, which makes her chagrin at this novel being considered a metaphor for lesbianism all the more hilarious. Honestly, there’s no point in being that coy about Theo’s “friend” unless there’s something scandalous about the relationship: don’t queer bait and expect not to be called out on it. Add to that the issue with Sophia Crain’s companion, all the hand-holding in the dark, the fussiness about Eleanor not being seen in Theo’s bathrobe, and there is a lot of repressed Sapphic imagery, moreso than statistically probable were it all unintentional. Sure Ms Jackson might not have intended for this novel to be about Eleanor’s sexual awakening and subsequent unraveling, but if you’re trying to write about straight people, maybe do that and skip all the lesbian signaling instead.

For all that this is palpably a book about sexual urges tho, I don’t think it was Eleanor’s last argument with Theo that drove her to do what she does in the end. Instead, I strongly feel that it was the arrival of Jane — another bossy, awful woman so reminiscent of the women Eleanor lived in thrall to — that set off her breakdown. Eleanor had finally found gaiety and independence in a small circle of people she didn’t feel beholden to: a found family, in the modern parlance. Never mind that the house that surrounded them was threatening and disorienting by turns. Really, what more perfect metaphor for the harshness of the real world to those who’d grown up both sheltered and browbeaten than a place full of both unusual terrors and unexpected joys? She was even able to start sidling up to acknowledging the guilt she felt over her mother’s death, the first step to begin healing from that trauma. But then Jane, the epitome of all the overbearing, belittling women she thought she’d escaped, shows up to disrupt her tenuous peace and Eleanor just breaks, even before she basically throws herself at Theo, almost as a last ditch attempt to save herself from having to return to her real life with her awful sister and a future of diminishing happiness and freedoms. Even that crushing fearfulness she might have recovered from, but when she subsequently runs around the house spying on everyone, only to find that none of them say a word about her, her entire sense of self is erased: it is as if she no longer exists, or never existed at all.

While THoHH is certainly a book about an actual haunted house and the spooky hijinks therein — tho was I scared by any of it? Eh, a little — the real meat of the story lies in Eleanor’s journey, of her flight towards freedom and her breakdown when she despairs of achieving it, alongside a strong critique of toxic familial relationships. I cannot be the only person who thought Hugh was sexually abusing Sophia, and that his second wife’s death was somehow connected to this. I am probably, definitely reading way too much into this book, but it is so very much less a novel of feeling and consciousness (ilu, Lily King) than it is a study of symbols and themes, such that it’s hard not to see the metaphors in everything!

I kinda want to watch the Netflix adaptation now even tho I know it also plays fast and loose with the story (like, why?! Is this story of a stifled woman in terrifying circumstances not interesting enough?) If I do, I’ll definitely write about it here. Also, there is at least one terrible pun in this review that I cannot acknowledge because spoilers! But yes, if you see it, I did that on purpose. One must have one’s juvenile pleasures.

The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson was published October 16th, 1959 and is available from all good booksellers including

Want it now? For the Kindle version, click here.

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