The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House Shirley Jackson‘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’.

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22 Comments

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22 responses to “The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

  1. I prefer to avoid all full-on gore so perhaps this one’s for me. Shirley Jackson’s name keeps cropping up on bloggers’ sites and not just around Halloween. I feel I should read at least one.

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    • Yes, I don’t normally choose books according to seasons (“beach reads” in the summer, festive books over Christmas etc) – just a coincidence that I came across this one in October. I believe she was quite a prolific short story writer too so I would like to see how her collections compare.

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  2. Lovely review Clare. This is one of hers I must read. (I’ve read and loved both We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Sundial).

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  3. jen_bookworm

    I was thinking of reading this but have read too many not really scary books

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  4. This was the first Shirley Jackson novel I read. It is brilliantly chilling.

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  5. I had to read the short, The Lottery, in school, and it has haunted me my whole life – if you haven’t read it, you should. My imagination ran wild with the family dynamic and the way population control was handled.

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  6. I’ve just read ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ and loved it! I’ll add this one too 🙂

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  7. Like Vicki said above, my only experience of Shirley Jackson is “The Lottery,” which we read in high school. I’ll have to get hold of some of her classic suspense works.

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  8. Looking forward to reading your thoughts on We Have Always Lived in the Castle!

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  9. I’ve heard a lot of amazing things about Shirley Jackson, mainly due to We Have Always Lived in the Castle. This one sounds interesting too, and I can’t wait of actually read her books 🙂

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  10. Great analysis/review!
    I agree with you when you talked about how much repetition there is in certain genres, it become quite predictable. It takes an incredible amount of skill and imagination to tell a story that is beyond what has been the “standard” horror story! At the same time, less is more. Some authors attempt to write a story with a complex plot, when all they actually need is one strong twist in the end!!

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  11. This does good, especially the elements of ambiguity and uncertainty. It’s always good to leave something to the reader’s imagination with this type of story. I’m hoping it will be my next Jackson.

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