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Book Review: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Book Review - The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Title: The Haunting of Hill HouseBook Review - The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Author: Shirley Jackson

Publisher: Viking Press

Genre: Horror Fiction

First Publication: 1959

Language: English

Major Characters: Dr. John Montague, Eleanor Vance, Theodora, Luke Sanderson, Mrs. Montague, Arthur Parker, Mrs. Dudley

Setting Place: Northeast USA

Narration: Third-person


Book Summary: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

First published in 1959, 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, the 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.


Book Review: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson belongs to those classic stories which caused the hype first of all. Shirley Jackson may be best known for her dystopian short story The Lottery which initially introduced me to her writing, but in the end, Hill House is what made her a commonly mentioned presence in the genre of classic horror stories. However, don’t be led into the wrong direction here. There are no zombies strolling over streets, no vampires lurking in the dark, no monsters running behind desperate victims. There is only a mysterious house with secrets of its own, only some curious characters experiencing something they would not have expected. The true terror of the story is lurking behind the words, catching hold of your mind only when you are reading between the lines.

The tale begins with the rational-minded Dr Montague, who is sufficiently taken with the legend surrounding Hill House, to invite a few other people to stay with him in the house to “test his theory” that the unexplained goings-on can all be explained with science and reason.

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.”

There is Eleanor, a quiet, shy, reserved woman who becomes increasingly reluctant to participate in the stay before she even gets there; encounters with hostile local people on the journey makes her certain that there is a sinister secret surrounding the place. Soon she meets Theodora, her “cousin”, who is more outgoing but the two women stick closely together upon their meeting. Then there is Luke Sanderson, the heir to the property, but somehow among the least receptive – or cut off even – when it comes to the story behind Hill House.

Initially, everyone there is sufficiently spooked by the house itself – being a most imposing and unwelcoming place to spend any time in – only to have Dr Montague add to this by telling them the rather grisly story of the unfortunate family who first lived there. Madness, bad fortunes and suicide are recurring in the family history, and understandably no-one can bear to stay in the place for very long, but the new residents (perhaps excepting Eleanor, who anticipates the worst already) decide to give the house a chance.

“Fear is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns. We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway.”

However the opinion that the house is, essentially, a malignant and living thing, with a will of its own to drive out anyone who dares to live there, begins to ring all the more true. It is not long before frightening events begin to unfold – loud banging in the night, writing on the wall and destruction of property – which seem to happen to, or close to, Eleanor more than anyone else. What makes The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson so unsettling is that events are described in the narrative clearly enough to induce fear and unease in the reader, but also vaguely enough that a rational explanation can’t be ruled out entirely.

Shirley Jackson’s writing style is unique and interesting, a style so different from other authors that in spite of the slow pace, it somehow manages to attract readers; and she’s one of the best female writers of horror stories. A subtle build-up of apprehension, combined with a disturbing back-story to overshadow the present narrative, serve to make this a story which has clearly influenced later supernatural writers, and continues to spook readers today.


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