Summary: Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House.
At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.
I have never really been one for ghost stories. I have never believed that houses can be haunted, that they can hold onto the dead like keepsakes. Houses simply do not wear their tenants as a badge of honor, in a locket around their throat. Houses are not horrifying entities; whatever awfulness resides in the house moves with the owners. A house is simply a house. And yet.
The idea of a building holding so much history, anguish, betrayal, and anger seems impossible until you’re introduced to Hill House. The famous opening lines begin by describing the house almost as a living, breathing concept. It is not a standard, normal, or even sane thing. It’s an indescribable entity, something dangerous and horrible, its capabilities completely unknown. And of course, “whatever walked there, walked alone.”
I was relatively young when the 1999 adaptation, The Haunting, came out, but I remember seeing it and being absolutely terrified by it. There are certain scenes that stick with me to this day. When the tv adaptation was released, I found myself so completely enamored by the story, by the mere concept that a house could have such a strong hold over a group of people, that it could haunt and hurt so effortlessly, so perfectly. I finally decided to give the original book a shot, hoping to finally connect all the pieces of the story. I went into this with low expectations, under the assumption that nothing could top my feelings for such a beautifully crafted show.
Instead, I found myself even deeper in love with the history of Hill House.
The storyline here is relatively simple and straightforward: an occult scholar invites a group of strangers, each with their own strange quirks and personalities, to stay in the house while he attempts to record proof of a haunting. Though the week starts somewhat harmlessly, the troupe does indeed begin to see the horrors of the house. There are loud noises, slamming of doors, and ominous caretakers, but the house slowly takes on a more sinister appearance. While it scares the doctor, Luke, and Theo, the hold it has over Nell is truly the driving force of the story.
Nell, who is bored with her life, who has no idea what to do with herself now that her mother has died and she no longer has to spend all her time caring for her. Nell, who has never felt the level of excitement that a haunted house gives her. Nell, who struggles to understand her relationships with both Luke and Theo, which both start out as lighthearted and even silly at times, and instead she begins to turn inward. The house lures and seduces Nell into itself, and the two slip gradually into being one unit. The house needs Nell just as much as Nell needs the house. “Journeys end in lovers meeting.”
“Walled up alive.” Eleanor began to laugh again at their stone faces. “Walled up alive,” she said. “I want to stay here.”
The ending scenes are extremely chilling and emotional. By the end of the book, Nell depends on the house to survive. She know she can’t leave, that they are too entwined in each other. I know I might be in the minority here, but I loved the abruptness to final pages. We see Nell commit herself fully to the house, but there are so many questions left unanswered that, as the reader, we must interpret for ourselves. Does Nell begin an endless cycle, becoming the ghosts who wrote “Come home Eleanor” on the walls in blood? Or does she finally, simply, end upon meeting her “lover”, after spending her entire life questioning every single choice and action she’s ever made?
In the final lines of the book, Eleanor briefly questions why she is driving her car headfirst into the tree, and we’re left wondering if this is something deeper – is it Eleanor’s own mental illness, or is it something more sinister? Is the house itself tricking her into killing herself so that it can keep her? But surely, a house is a simple thing. Surely, a house is not capable of such horror.
The house was waiting now, she thought, and it was waiting for her; no one else could satisfy it. “The house wants me to stay,” she told the doctor.