Review: “The Haunting Of Hill House” By Shirley Jackson (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a look at a horror novel that I’d been meaning to read for a while.

After hearing about a modern TV (well, streaming rather than broadcast television) adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel “The Haunting Of Hill House”, I mistakenly thought that it was connected to the excellent 1990s remake of “House On Haunted Hill“.

Even though I soon learnt that it had nothing to do with this film (and that this other 1990s movie that I vaguely remembered was based on it), I was still intrigued enough to put this novel on my “to read” list.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “The Haunting Of Hill House”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2018 Penguin (UK) paperback edition of “The Haunting Of Hill House” that I read.

The novel begins with a brief description of an old mansion called Hill House. Paranormal investigator Dr John Montague has heard stories about this house and wants to conduct research into it. So, he rents the house for three months before writing to several people who have had psychic experiences. Out of the many letters he sends, only two people reply – a lonely woman with an unhappy family life called Eleanor Vance and a bohemian artist called Theodora. Not only that, the owner of the house, Mrs. Sanderson, insists that her ne’er do well nephew Luke also accompanies the party on their investigation.

After “borrowing” her sister’s car after an argument, Eleanor takes the long drive to Hill House. But, when she arrives, the only people there are a spiteful caretaker and his creepily robotic wife. Not only that, the house itself looks wrong, mean and evil. Luckily for Eleanor, the other guests arrive a little while later and – although the house is a bit odd – they settle in and have a good laugh about the place. What could possibly go wrong?

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it deserves it’s reputation as a horror classic 🙂 It is a really brilliant blend of genuinely creepy horror and genuinely funny comedy. It is the kind of book where, when reading some parts of it, I thought “Yes! This is my kind of novel 🙂 ” and, in other parts, was surprised that a horror novel of this vintage could be so scary. In other words, it’s a surprisingly timeless horror story.

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they’re a genuinely chilling mixture of ominous horror, gothic horror, bleak horror, paranormal horror, tragic horror, jump scares, implied horror and, most of all, psychological horror. Although this novel has all of the trappings of a “cosy” Victorian-style ghost story, it is much more akin to the claustrophobic psychological drama of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper“, the suspense of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” and maybe the ominous dread and character-based tension of a more modern novel like Adam Nevill’s “The Ritual“.

This horror is also helped by several of the novel’s bleak themes, which include evil, loss, loneliness and the weight of the past. This is also a novel about the gaps between dreams and reality, about despair so deep that even a haunted house filled with untrustworthy strangers seems positively heavenly in comparison to the world outside. Where the ghostly horrors of Hill House pale in comparision to the horrors of bleak, everyday reality.

Seriously, this novel has one of the best – and creepiest – opening sentences I’ve read in a while: ‘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.‘ and it really helps to set the tone for the rest of the story. This is a novel where you are never entirely sure what is imagined and what is real, or whether one is better than the other.

Yet, despite all of this grimness, the novel is also a lot funnier than I’d expected 🙂 In addition to lots of amusingly irreverent dialogue, some excellent dark humour, some brilliantly quirky characters and even an obscure joke about how sleep-inducingly dull Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel “Pamela” is , this novel also has the kind of knowing humour of more modern horror movies (with references to things like Dracula etc..).

Not only does this unexpected comedy fit in really well with the rest of the story but it also expertly walks a line between giving the story the wonderfully fun atmosphere of a 1980s/90s horror comedy movie and also gradually deepening the story’s horror when you start to realise that the characters are cracking so many jokes in order to keep their sanity intact. Serously, if you want a great example of how to blend horror and comedy, then read this novel.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is excellent. Yes, it is a bit on the formal side of things, sometimes reading like a Victorian novel and sometimes reading more like a story from the 1920s-30s, but this allows for a lot of really atmospheric descriptions, brilliant sentences and excellent characterisation too. Interestingly, although the novel is set in America, the writing style almost made me feel like this novel was set in Britain at times.

This novel also walks a very fine line between reliable and unreliable narration, with the third-person narrator sometimes focusing on Eleanor’s thoughts and sometimes narrating in a more traditional way. Not only does this lend the novel a sense of personality, but it also deepens the story’s unsettling horror too.

As for the characters, this novel is also excellent 🙂 Good horror relies on good characterisation and nowhere is this more evident than in this novel. The main characters are a wonderfully quirky group of misfits and eccentrics who really feel like they are real people.

Not only are Eleanor’s thoughts and anxieties a major part of the novel, but the complicated and gradually fraying friendship between the characters is also a major part of what makes this novel so creepy. Not only that, several of the background characters (eg: Mrs. Dudley, Arthur and Mrs. Montague) manage to be both hilarious and creepy at the same time too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At an efficient 246 pages in length, it never feels like a single page is wasted. Likewise, although this novel is a bit on the slow-paced side of things, this actually works in the story’s favour, allowing it to gradually build atmosphere and to lull the reader into a false sense of security before things start to get creepier and creepier…

As for how this sixty year old novel has aged, it is timeless. Yes, the writing style is fairly formal (almost to the point of being Victorian at times), but this really fits in with the style and atmosphere of the story. It is a story where the characters still feel realistic, where the comedy is still amusing and – most importantly- where the horror is still scary too. Not only that, the irreverent humour and the “band of misfits” main characters also lend this vintage novel a surprisingly modern atmosphere at times.

All in all, this is an absolutely brilliant horror novel 🙂 It’s timeless, atmospheric, quirky, funny and, above all, genuinely creepy. This is a novel that will make you laugh, fill you with bleak despair and make you at least slightly nervous. Seriously, don’t read it at night.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.