Audiobook Review: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Publisher: Penguin Books (1959)
Author Information: Website
Tiara’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Occult scholar Dr. John Montague rents Hill House for the summer after hearing of the strange occurrences that happened there. No family has been able to stay in house for more than a few days at a time. Even though they give a wide range of excuses, Dr. Montague believes they do this simply because it’s unfeasible to a rational person to say that some unknown fear drove them out. The only thing the families agree on is that no one should set foot in Hill House. Hill House is an eighty-year-old mansion built by a man named Hugh Crain, and there has never been a moment’s peace for anyone since it was built. Violent deaths, family squabbles, and suicide taint its brief history.
Dr. Montague invites guests to stay at Hill House with him to help him track any phenomena. These guests are all chosen for their connection to strange events. Only two end up taking him up on his offer. Eleanor Vance, a fragile, socially awkward woman who had an experience with a poltergeist as a young girl, and Theodora (no last name), a free-spirited woman who has exhibited psychic tendencies. The last person to join them is Luke Sanderson, a charming rake who represents the family who owns the property. Despite their different lifestyles and personalities, the four form quick friendships with one another.
The group begins to experience strange occurrences in Hill House with Eleanor being the most receptive to what is happening around them as she increasingly loses grip with reality. There’s some evidence to suggest that the event she witnessed during her childhood might actually have been some supernatural doing of her own that she is unaware of, a doing that may have followed her to Hill House.
I can only vaguely remember watching The Haunting with Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, and Lili Taylor, and I’ve never watched the original one from the 60s. So, I didn’t have much movie lore to taint the book for me other than having images of Taylor as Eleanor Vance, Wilson as Luke Sanderson, and Zeta-Jones as Theodora. Liam Neeson did not fit the image of Dr. Montague, but I think I remember them calling him by another last name in the movie, anyway.
I’ve been a horror book and movie fan for a very long time. For quite a number of years (read: most of my preteen, teenage, and young adult years) horror was about the only thing I would read with the occasional read from other genres. The first horror novel that I can remember leaving an impression with me as a preteen was Stephen King’s It. Sure, I had read other horror books, mostly in the YA vein, during that time. However, even as a preteen, I was a bit numbed to the scary aspects of horror books, and I remember It being the moment when a whole new world of horror opened up for me. However, two subgenres of horror were never really my cuppa–zombie horror and ghost stories.
Even though ghost stories aren’t high on my list that doesn’t stop me from reading them. I just found that most ghost stories never really got any better than your average 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey books. Enjoyable, fun reads, but kind of campy. Sure, there have been exceptions as always, but most of them read like the kind of urban legends you’d whisper to your friend. “Hey, did you hear the story about the cheerleader who died on the football field and now her ghost will chase you if you stand on the 50-yard line at midnight?” Yeah, that. I’ve always been more into the macabre, anyway. So, I went into The Haunting of Hill House expecting it to be kitschy.
This is a ghost story, but it manages to be more than just a story that’s told around the camp fires. Jackson brought a psychological angle that makes the reader question if these things are really happening to this bunch or if it is some unexplainable shared delusion. Maybe Eleanor made the thing up entirely. We learn early in the novel that she has a very ripe imagination that threatens to overflow. This imagination may be the consequence of taking care of her ailing mother for years before her death and never having much contact with others. Jackson spends a fair amount of time delving into Eleanor’s thoughts with poetic prose that can sometimes make you forget that you’re reading a horror novel.
At the same time, that same poetic writing can suddenly be twisted by Jackson to capture the eerie, dreadful feel of Hill House. It creates tension and scares that seem to be hidden just out of the corner of your eye. I wouldn’t say this book is necessarily scary, but it creates a fair mount of tension for the characters that they never really shake as the house seeds itself deep in their psyche. Jackson never takes the mystery out of the story, leaving so much of the happenings at Hill House up to the reader, which makes the mind run wild. Add to that the caretakers, Mr. and Mrs. Dudley, who both are depressing, dour people that help feed the groups’ edginess.
I should take some time out here to praise the narrator, Bernadette Dunne. Her raspy reading voice helped to accentuate the creepiness of the story, but she did an excellent job creating voices and personality for the characters through her voice, as well. I don’t think this would have been quite as enjoyable without her narration of the story. I loved hearing her Mrs. Dudley, who was probably the most terrifying and the funniest person in the book for me because of these lines delivered so well by Ms. Dunne:
“I leave before dark comes […] We live over in the town, six miles away. So there won’t be anyone around if you need help. We couldn’t even hear you, in the night. No one could. No one lives any nearer than the town. No one else will come any nearer than that. In the night,” Mrs. Dudley said, and smiled outright. “In the dark,” she said, and closed the door behind her.
This is part of a much longer mantra that Mrs. Dudley recites repeatedly throughout the novel to the characters. She rarely says much else aside from these same words, and Dunne’s delivery really cuts down to the bone with those words. (Side note: If our small theater ever puts on a production of The Haunting of Hill House, I would so try out for Mrs. Dudley’s part.)
The Haunting of Hill House is a tense story that seems to ask if the house is truly haunted or could these things have happened because the group believed in them. Would they have been faced with this same terror if they hadn’t had certain expectations about what to expect or is the house truly some primordial evil waiting and watching for victims? It’s almost as if the story is asking the reader, “What do you think… in the night… in the dark?”