‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson is widely regarded as one of the best horror stories of the 20th century and makes for timely reading ahead of Halloween at the end of the month. It tells the story of Dr. John Montague, an eminent anthropologist and occult scholar seeking evidence that Hill House is haunted. He rents the property over the summer and invites people with experience of the supernatural to stay there with him – his outgoing assistant Theodora, shy and retiring Eleanor Vance, and the heir to the house Luke Sanderson – so they can investigate the puzzling mysteries which await inside together.
Unsurprisingly, it turns out that Hill House isn’t the kind of property which would have received glowing five star reviews on Trip Advisor had such a thing existed in 1959 when the book was first published. The plot revolves around the increasingly menacing atmosphere of the house and peculiar behaviour of the guests. All of the common aspects of a haunted house story are here: the suspicious locals and ominous foreshadowing before Eleanor’s arrival at the house, the isolated location, the eerie history of its previous occupants, the initial scepticism of the guests followed by an unsettling sense of disorientation and a series of unexplained bizarre episodes including writing appearing on the walls. Many of these features have become such predictable staples of the gothic horror genre that it is easy to forget how much skill is involved in employing all of these elements and building suspense so convincingly, something that Jackson achieves with superior results here.
It is the ambiguity and vagueness of the supernatural phenomena which occur, much of which is never fully explained, as well as the unknowability of certain characters and their reasons for being at Hill House which makes the book so chilling, especially the ending. Eleanor, in particular, is socially awkward and lonely having lived a very sheltered life, and constantly worries about how the other guests perceive her – in many ways, it is her existing characteristics which shape her experience of Hill House as much as the unusual events which occur while she is there.
‘The Haunting of Hill House’ is a surprisingly subtle classic of the horror genre, maybe too subtle for those looking for some full-on gore, but the traditional minimalist style is brilliantly effective. It is a book which made me want to read everything Jackson has ever written, so I am sure I will be seeking out more of her books in the future, most likely starting with ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’.