What is tired about ghost stories? I can name a few things: blood, gore, jumpscares, over the top menacism, silliness, tropes, must I go on? I was destined to never like horror movies after I watched an admittedly terrible one when I was seven years old called The House on Haunted Hill starring Taye Diggs and Geoffrey Rush. I was far too young, and regardless of how you feel about the movie, you can’t knock it for its intensity in the eyes of a seven year old. In all honesty I was traumatized for a couple days. Every time I closed my eyes I saw what one of the characters did through her camcorder: A scene in which surgeons were operating on a patient and upon seeing her seeing them through her camcorder, slaughter her, leaving a blood trail across the floor, going up a wall, and across the ceiling until it somehow disappears as if she was dragged through a cement wall. Even now that scene disturbs me deeply. Unnerving me to the point where I found it difficult to type. As such, watching horror movies is something I can’t bring myself to do. I’ve never seen one that didn’t cause me the same feelings I had a seven year old finishing up a TV edited version of House on Haunted Hill around 11 at night on TNT.
Yet I share the same fascination with being scared that I think a majority of people do. As such, I can tell you the plot to most of the popular horror movies of my life not because I watched them, but because I waited a week after their release and ventured onto IMDB and read the almost always obnoxiously detailed synopsis that someone posts after having seen the movie at least seven times. I also like Stephen King. I like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Reading horror is a lot of fun. What took me a long time to get to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is the repetition of the words “haunt,” “hill,” and “house.” It should be self-evident why these words being grouped together would upset me: namely that it gives me a lot of flashbacks to me in a moment of trauma. Dare I utter the controversial phrase? Trigger Warning.
I have assumed since the moment I first became aware of Shirley Jackson’s novel that it was the basis (loosely) for the gorefest and jumpscare contest that was 1999’s House on Haunted Hill. I was torn because part of me was obstinate that this book simply wasn’t worth the trouble. It wouldn’t be worth reliving all that nonsense that scared me so much. The other part of me urged me to confront the fright in written form where I could finally see that it was no more upsetting than any other gorefest I’ve read. If anything, it would then finally become forgettable. Then I Googled it. In case you aren’t aware, The Haunting of Hill House has utterly no relation to House on Haunted Hill except in the words that are in the title, most probably used by the producers of the pitiful film to drag unaware literary lovers of Shirley Jackson to the film (unless they had already seen The Haunting and weren’t going to fall for Hollywood’s nonsense twice in the same year).
No, The Haunting of Hill House is a fantastic little novel that persists in being brilliant by refusing to show its reader anything. It doesn’t answer any questions, only raises them. In horror, this is excellence. Think Jaws. What makes it good is that the shark is hidden from you for such a long time. In The Haunting of Hill House you are kept at bay by an increasingly unreliable narrator and her never really seeing anything that can give you any real answers to what exactly is going on a Hill House. Eleanor (the main character) is a disenchanted human being who responds to a letter inviting her to partake in the study of a potentially haunted house. It is at the house that she meets Theodora (Eleanor’s polar opposite), Luke (the funny, deceptive, yet charming heir to Hill House), and Dr. Montague, who invited her.
What becomes the chief feeling of all four characters is that Hill House is doing more watching of them than they are of it. That it has a way of infecting those who are residing within it, causing them to leave as quickly as they had arrived. Dr. Montague explains that the house’s architecture is inherently deceptive, never allowing a person to feel at ease within it due to the way it throws a person off-balance in subtle ways. Nothing is flat or directly vertical. There is no part of Hill House that a person will ever be able to call familiar. This attitude seeps into each character as they remain in the house night after night, none of them sure what to expect next. There is strange knocking on doors, an inexplicable cold spot, writing that appears out of nowhere, and a general sense that none of them should ever be completely alone. In it is this mood of the novel that it would be easy to not notice that Eleanor is becoming more and more comfortable within the house. That she feels what it feels. She is aware of the sounds it hears. The cold spots that begin to inhabit every room, disturbing the party, begin to feel warm to her. The house begins to feel like the home she has never had before.
This move is subtle and brilliant. Jackson makes the house possess the narrator so slowly and methodically that you begin to wonder just how much you can trust Eleanor at all. Is the house actually possessing her or is she simply a disturbed human being? How much of the fact that everyone seems to pay so much attention to her is simply due to the other characters seeing her in a way that we cannot because she doesn’t see herself? There is much talk of how blind we are to our true selves. Perhaps there has been no knocking. Perhaps the whole thing is something Eleanor did herself without realizing it.Or maybe she was as feeble-minded as she thought at the beginning of the novel and the house absorbed her mind with little trouble.
The Haunting of Hill House is a nifty little novel that is a wonderful read. It never once tries to do too much or go outside of what it knows will work. In some novels that is a detriment, in this one, it is what makes it great.
Recommended to: Those who love a good horror read and haven’t gotten around to this one.
Avoid as if standing at an open door for ten minutes you stupid cat just go out already: Probably not for the faintest of heart. It does have some pretty intense moments. For the first time in my life I made sure I finished a horror story during the day.