The internet told me that Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is said to be “one of the best literary ghost stories published during the 20th century”. Horror nerds fill the forums with corroborating praise.
So, I drove to the used book store and I bought a copy and started reading.
The book caused surprise. What I learned – and could not have predicted – is that Jackson’s acclaimed novel is not a horror story, but a work of psychological fiction written within an atmosphere of – not fear or otherworldly spookiness or anything frightening or uncanny – but of pensive sadness and anxious gloom.
Jackson’s talents are on parade. Her prose is soft and musical. Her dialogue fresh, clever and true to life. Some of the characters jump off the page. Eleanor Vance, and her free spirited sidekick, Theodora, are fun, well rounded and sympathetic.
Nonetheless, skillful writing is not the distinguishing feature of The Haunting of Hill House. What makes this book particular for me is that it has been placed in the genre of gothic horror without providing readers with one single solitary moment that even approaches a fright.
The standout moments of the book in relation to the supernatural occurrences of Hill House fell so short of effecting me in anyway, and are so prosaic, that I mistook them as foreshadowings of meatier, more acute scares to come. My assumptions were wrong.
The big scares during the first half of the book are that the inhabitants of Hill House hear unexplained noises, like the sound of an unseen ghost roaming the halls at night. Then, what might be a ghost bangs on a bedroom door for a while. To make these pedestrian proceedings even more shrug worthy, Jackson’s writing is at it’s least inspired when her characters are directly engaged with the ghostly forces of the house.
Like I said, the second half does not compensate. The scares are even sparser.
At one point, Eleanor and Theodora are walking together, outside of Hill House, around it’s hilly property. They reach the end of a path and come to a garden where a family is having a picnic. Theodora screams and the pair retreat to the house for safety. We realize that the family was actually probably a ghost family.
Very low effort stuff. However, the incompetency of the ghost scenes makes sense within the broader scope of the book.
Hill House is a McGuffin of sorts. So is Doctor John Montague and his experiment and all of the underwhelming non events that vaguely suggest at the idea of something ghosty. That is why every moment that the reader is meant to recognize as scary reads like underdeveloped, low effort filler.
Jackson doesn’t want to write about the terrors of the spirit world. She’s interested in people and their psychology. Therefore, the horror aspect of the novel is so thin, because it is only there to serve as a trigger to explore the troubled psyche of Eleanor. What’s meant to be notable is Eleanor’s reactions to Hill House.
Eleanor’s past traumas are brought to light where they can be better seen and understood. We learn that Eleanor has a case of arrested development. After spending her entire adult life caring for her invalid mother, she is trapped in suspended childhood. She longs for freedom. Yet, she has already locked herself into the dungeon of expectations put forth by Montague, her new burdensome parental figure.
So, The Haunting of Hill House is not a horror novel. Well, it is a horror/ghost novel, but only in the most technical and literal sense. Every ghost scene in the book could be skipped, because all of the horror content is passionless filler.
That’s okay, though. What this book teaches us is that the dark baggage of our soul is more frightening than a haunted house ever could be. Right?
No! Absolutely not. I bought and spent the time to read a horror novel, because I wanted to feel that uncanny discomfort and that childlike credulity that makes a grown man sleep with the lights on. It doesn’t matter to me that the non-horror elements are well done. Jackson should have done a better job at creating a dark atmosphere.
Critiques of my take will say that the book is more than sixty years old. That I shouldn’t judge a book from the mid-twentieth century with a contemporary measuring stick. The Haunting of Hill House was scary at the time and for the audiences it was written for.
Maybe so. It’s hard to believe, though. Poe was writing truly scary American horror fiction more than a hundred years before Jackson published Hill House. It’s hard to imagine horror fans could find this acceptable after reading Poe.
This book is a bummer.
Do not read.