This book is not just about a haunted house. It’s also about loneliness, women and mental health. The writing is not perfect but I found it to be compelling. I’m sure that I’ll read more of Shirley Jackson’s work, because this novel intrigued me.
The story follows a group of four people staying in Hill House: Dr Montague (a researcher of psychic phenomena), Luke (the heir to the house), Theodora (a bohemian kind of girl) and Eleanor. The latter is our protagonist and we experience the story from her perspective. She is quite a timid person, having been a carer for her mother and then living with her overbearing sister. Accepting an invitation to stay at a ‘haunted house’ offers her the chance of escape and even to develop her sense of self. At first, it seems to be merely a cold and creepy house without anything happening. And then the haunting begins…
There are some genuinely terrifying moments in this book. However, the writing itself tends to carefully avoid mentioning what’s going on. Sometimes this is frustrating, other times I found it a good device to increase the tension. It’s also realistic that the characters often chat and joke in an attempt to put their fears aside. I liked how Jackson examines their expectations of a haunted house, a traditional theme of horror and mystery novels from times past. A dark and run-down building which somehow looks evil? Strange noises in the night? Unexplained cold spots? Reticent old servant who won’t stay there past sundown? All present and correct. It’s almost a parody of the genre. But the slow pace allows the sinister atmosphere to build, without descending into silliness.
This novel leaves many questions unanswered. I think it’s best that way.
First published in 1959. This edition is by Penguin Modern Classics, no date.