I finally broke down and bought this 1959 novel because I’ve heard so much about it over the years. The Haunting of Hill House contains the requisite features of any ghost story: musty rooms, disorienting angles, a cold spot, disembodied voices, and terrifying noises. What makes it special is the way Shirley Jackson uses the house to reflect individual human experiences.
Dr. John Montague, a phenomenologist, invites three people to join him in a scientific study of Hill House. Something has driven away each of its previous tenants, and the doctor wants to know what they are. Each guest has different reasons for accepting the invitation. Eleanor Vance, whose mother died recently, finds herself drawn to the house before she ever sees it. The relationships that develop among the other guests force Eleanor into empathy with Hill House.
Eleanor’s character and motivations emerge in nicely detailed narration as she fantasizes about starting her life over. On her arrival, she finds Hill House defiant and daring: “This house, which seemed to have formed itself … reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity. It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope.” While the other guests respond predictably to supernatural events, Eleanor finds personal significance in them.
Anyone who has read The Shining or ‘Salem’s Lot will quickly recognize the great influence Jackson’s novel had on Stephen King. Jack Torrance’s adventures in the Overlook Hotel and Ben Mears’ obsession with the Marsten house have their roots in Hill House. But Jackson’s classic is more than a horror story. It is a tale of personal tragedy well deserving of a five-star rating.