No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.
–Shirley Jackson - The Haunting of Hill House - c.1959
Part of my RIP reading, and read with The Estella Society’s Readalong.
Hill House is unoccupied. The owners have tried to rent it, but tenants never stay long. The house has an 80 year history that includes deaths and strange goings on. It is just the sort of house Dr John Montague has been looking for. He wants to perform a scientific study of the phenomenon that is a haunted house. He researches the house and its events before hand, but he also researches people. He wants to have a company of people, as is traditional in the investigation of haunted houses, and so he has searched for people with any sort of psychic or supernatural occurrences in their past. But of all the names that he contacts only two actually show up at the house; Eleanor and Theodora. Along with Luke, as the representative of the house’s owners, and the good doctor, that makes for four inhabitants.
What will they witness in Hill House?
Eleanor is main protagonist. We see the events, for the most part, through her perspective. And so coloured by her interpretation and her thoughts. And this is a book that is all about interpretation and feeling. It is all atmosphere and slowly building tension.
Eleanor is a fascinating character. She is 32, but constantly described by the other characters in juvenile terms, she is the child, the baby, the innocent. And yet when the reader is introduced to her the book tells us who she hates. Hatred is not usually what we associate with innocents.
Eleanor is looking for something. A new start. A new home. She spent most of her life caring for her mother, now she lives with her sister and her family. Unwanted again. So when the letter from Dr. Montague arrives she sees it as a way out. But on her first viewing of Hill House her instincts shout at her to leave. She doesn’t. She stays because that’s just silly isn’t it? It is just a house after all.
And again on that first night in Hill House our impressions of Eleanor “the innocent” are thrown into doubt by her lies. Minor lies perhaps, fibbing to herself and making a nicer past, a nicer home fore herself. Nevertheless the fact is that she is deceiving those around her for no real reason, just as a child might make up a story about themselves.
And that whole theme, childhood and motherhood, domineering mothers and children fighting for their own identity is a huge one in the book.
And then there is the whole question over whether the house if haunted or possessed or whatever? Are any of the events really happening? and if they are is the house responsible, is there a spirit in the house or is it one of the guests?
And of course that ambiguity makes the atmosphere all the more creepy. Nothing is shown, everything is left up the imagination, and lets face it, that is always much much worse than anything that can actually be described.
This is my first Shirley Jackson and it certainly won’t be the last.