I picked up The Haunting of Hill House for a re-read for a number of reasons:
- It’s one of the books I shove under other people’s noses, saying “You must read this!”
- I couldn’t remember when I last read it.
- It’s R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril time, and this was the perfect book to start my personal reading challenge of four books between now and the end of October. Ordinarily, reading four books in two months isn’t much of a stretch, but one of the books I’ve pledged to read is an historical novel 642 pages long. In hardcover. (It’s 720 pages in trade paper, 909 pages in mass market paper. Yes, I just spent several minutes on Amazon looking up the page count for the sole purpose of impressing the three people out there reading this review, which thus far hasn’t even begun. The review, I mean. So, onward.)
This short novel opens with the single most chilling paragraph I’ve ever read:
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. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
In his introduction to this edition, Stephen King parses that paragraph to within an inch of its life. I differ with him in his interpretation that the paragraph means Hill House dreams. I think the house does not dream; therefore, it is not sane. But who am I to disagree with King?
Regardless, with that opening paragraph, Shirley Jackson immediately creates an eerie setting for her four main characters to inhabit. Dr Montague, a scholar interested in psychic phenomena (the field of his doctorate is never mentioned), has rented Hill House and invited a few select individuals to spend a summer with him, exploring its mysteries and helping him gather material for a definitive work. Only two of his invitees accept: Eleanor, the dogsbody of her family and so browbeaten she believes in her own worthlessness, while at the same time she longs to experience a life of freedom, joy, and love; and Theodora, sparkling, confident, independent of spirit and sharp of tongue. The fourth member of their party is Luke, the nephew and heir of the owner of Hill House, young, brash, perhaps a bit of a ne’er-do-well, and a last-minute addition to the group at the insistence of his aunt.
Each bring ghosts of their own to their summer at Hill House, but none more so than Eleanor. And it is to Eleanor, with her diminished spirit, fervent imagination, and yearning for a place to belong, that the house turns its focus, and all the bumps and jolts and noises and quite literally the writing on the walls are aimed at her.
Hill House is a testament to Jackson’s skill with words. Each sentence contributes to the looming dread Dr Montague feels, each scene to the mounting fear the group experiences, each knock of unknown origin on the door and heavy footstep in the hall to the exhilaration Eleanor embraces, building and towering and overwhelming, until the final scene when Eleanor makes her violent and perhaps not-entirely-voluntary choice.
Whatever walks in Hill House, walks alone, indeed.