Shirley Jackson,
The Haunting of Hill House
(Ameron, 1959; Penguin, 1984)

The Haunting of Hill House remains one of the most important horror novels of all time and certainly one of the most singular haunted house tales ever written.

It is certainly worth mentioning that at no time do we or the characters actually see any sort of visible ghostly manifestation; the phenomena are limited to cold spots, spectral banging on the walls and doors, messages written on walls and torn, blood-spewed clothing in one room. If Jackson had compelled Hugh Crain (the main who built Hill House) to pop out of the woodwork and say "Boo!" this story would have been long forgotten. Still, it quite amazes me that Shirley Jackson has met with such critical success and eternal popularity; I say this only because her writing style is unique and rather off-the-wall.

Truly, Jackson's writing itself is haunted, and she herself almost surely was in some manner. There is a degree of insanity in every page; the characters often engage in dialogue that is childish of a sort and certainly different from normal adult conversation. I would think such idiosyncratic writing would appeal only to those like myself who are different, somewhat kooky, outsiders looking at the real world through thick-paned glass that sometimes fogs over or plays tricks with our eyes depending on the angle in which the sun hits it or does not hit it.

Eleanor is an especially appealing character to me because I share many of her doubts and fears: I don't belong. What are people saying about me? Are people laughing at me behind my back? Why am I here and where am I going? No one rivals Jackson in the ability to paint a deeply moving, psychologically deep portrait of the tortured soul. The fact that so many people praise this book must mean that most people are plagued with self-doubt, which I find sadly comforting. In any event, Eleanor is a perfectly tragic heroine; those who can't relate to her must surely at least pity her.

The character of Theodora is also fascinating, as she largely represents Eleanor's opposite: a vibrant personality, full of life and a need to be in the middle of it, probably insecure inwardly but strikingly bold outwardly. This dichotomy between two "sisters" is a constant theme in Jackson's work. The Eleanor-Theo relationship is reflected and honed against the relationship of Hugh Crain's two daughters, twin souls who grew up in the dark mansion as loving sisters but who eventually came to hate each other and fight for ownership rights to the house. Eleanor and Theo also have a subtle love-hate relationship, the conflict between the two representing a jealousy over the house. Both want to be the center of attention, although Eleanor would never admit such a desire, and the fact that the house itself obviously harbors a strange enchantment for Eleanor bothers Theo and enchants Eleanor. When Theo's room and clothing are painted in blood, the house clearly signifies the soul with whom its sympathies lie, and this marks a turning point in the text. Eleanor's rapid descent into madness seems a little sudden to me at times, and the exceedingly nonsensical conversations between all of the characters strikes me as quite mad. Of course, at the end, one wonders just which of the later conversations actually happened outside of Eleanor's own mind.

The introduction of the doctor's wife in the closing section of the book effects a radical change in the mood of the novel. Mrs. Montague and her associate Arthur are incredibly annoying people. Their professed beliefs in the paranormal and attempts to contact spirits by way of a planchette clearly upset the mood of both the house and its occupants (and the reader). Their over-the-top belief in spirits and determination to contact them using parlor-method techniques serve to ridicule the house and Eleanor and quickly usher in the denouement of the story. Eleanor's sense of belonging to the house takes precedence over everything else in her life; she has come home, and the house's wish in this regard is fulfilled. The ending itself is striking and perfectly fitting, I feel, and does much to keep the spirit of this wonderful novel in your mind and soul for a long time.

This is not a novel to cast aside and forget; long after you have finished the book, Eleanor and Hill House will haunt your mind and soul.

by Daniel Jolley
12 November 2005