Review: The Haunting of Hill House

by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. Penguin Classics. 208 pp. US $15.00/CAN $16.50 ISBN: 978-0143039983

Most people have seen a place that seemed to be bad. There was something about it which made a shiver run down your spine when you looked at it.

For me, this bad place was not a spooky Victorian mansion (I lived in one, converted into a dorm). My scary place was an abandoned hospital in bright, young and skyscraper-blue Vancouver.

Every time my husband and I walked next to the abandoned building, we thought it was staring at us. The building was turned into expensive, pretty condos, but I still wouldn’t want to live there. I would hate to wake up in the middle of the night and think that somewhere, deep beneath the new building, bits of the old hospital still remain, like buried bones.

This feeling of unease about a building is at the core of The Haunting of Hill House, a story about a group of people spending a summer at a house that is “leprous”, evil and yet entirely mundane. There are weird noises, cold spots and feelings of unease. The wallpaper and the décor of the rooms are unpleasant. One might go insane in Hill House, but not because a decapitated ghost tried to strangle you. It would be the small things, like the crooked angle of a room or the oppressive darkness of the woodwork, which would drive a visitor into madness.

This is what makes The Haunting of Hill House so terrifying. The 1963 adaptation of the novel gets the idea right and uses sound to create an effective sense of dread. There is a very good scene where something unseen starts banging on the doors of rooms and you can hear it getting closer and closer as it moves up the hallway.

The 1999 version of the novel makes explicit everything that is implicit in the novel. CGI trickery attracts too much attention to itself, dissolving the quiet spell of Hill House, and of its protagonist, Eleanor.

Eleanor is written in the mold of many of Jackson’s female characters: slightly unbalanced, repressed, clinging to a sense of normality. She has a rich imagination and, perhaps, she might be causing (or intensifying) the disturbances at the house. Whether Eleanor is haunted by real ghosts or the ghosts of her mind seems superfluous. The haunting, whatever its source, is real to her and it becomes real to the reader.

The house is claustrophobic, oppressive. It bears down on the characters exploring its hallways. Yet it also has a strange charm to itself. While on her way to the house, Eleanor fantasizes about fairy tales, princes and “lovers meeting” at the end of a journey. Eleanor’s lover and intended in this case might well be the house itself.

The Haunting of Hill House is a superb horror novel. Elegant and intense, this is required reading for lovers of ghost stories.

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