Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
By rights, I should have read Shirley Jackson’s classic haunted-house novel as a teenager. My father, a high-school English teacher and a voracious reader, strongly recommended her to me– in particular, “The Lottery”, which he considered one of the scariest stories ever written. He was right, of course, it’s a blood-curdling tale; unfortunately, I was so disturbed by it that I didn’t read another word of Jackson’s until this month, for RIP V. After I watched the 1963 movie adaptation starring Julie Harris, I was very curious about the original story.
Based on my one experience with Jackson, I expected a disturbing story, and perhaps one a bit mannered, a bit dated. I expected something of a dotty great-aunt of story–the sort of great-aunt who may have murdered a few family members decades ago, but nothing was ever proved, and anyway, the old dear is well past causing any such trouble now. I expected the tale might be a bit dry and dusty, requiring some work to stay focused on. I did not expect to laugh out loud as often as I did; did not expect the wit and humor and trenchant observation of human nature. I didn’t expect a story so compelling I could hardly put the book down, nor did I expect to have so much sympathy for poor, mad Eleanor Vance. Oh, the movie makes you pity her, all right, but her shrill neuroticism keeps you at arm’s length. In the book, inside her head, she’s just as neurotic, but we have such an intimacy with her thoughts we really can’t help empathizing with her, rooting for her to find a place to call home.
Eleanor Vance was thirty-two years old when she came to Hill House. The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister…She could not remember ever being truly happy in her adult life; her years with her mother had been built up devotedly around small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness, and unending despair. Without ever wanting to become reserved and shy, she had spent so long alone, with no one to love, that it was difficult for her talk, even casually, to another person without self-consciousness and an awkward inability to find words….During the whole underside of her life, ever since her first memory, Eleanor had been waiting for something like Hill House.
For eleven years, Eleanor has been her mother’s nursemaid, companion, cook, and laundress. Following their mother’s death, Eleanor is begrudgingly taken in by her resentful older sister; granted the meanest of concessions (she sleeps on the living room couch and has almost nothing of her own), she is in danger of settling into servitude in the sister’s home when the invitation to Hill House arrives. Finally, someone, somewhere, wants her for her own sake. There is a place in the world where she is requested–desired–expected to be. She doesn’t know why the invitation to Hill House has come to her; it’s enough that it has.
The reason, she finds out soon enough, is that Dr. John Montague has staked out Hill House as the place to scientifically establish the reality of hauntings and related paranormal activity, and he needs a few ‘psychically attuned’ people to goad the bogies into manifesting. Only two accept the invitation–Theodora, who enjoys some fame in paranormal circles for her mind-reading powers, and Eleanor, who is shocked when Dr. Montague mentions that she was the center of some poltergeist activity when she was a child. “They never even told me what was going on. My mother said it was the neighbors, they were always against us because she wouldn’t mix with them.” Luke, the nephew of Hill House’s absentee owners, joins the party to keep an eye on the family interests–just to make sure no-one makes off with the silver or digs up the cellar looking for skeletons. This merry, if mismatched, band settles in to await Hill House’s every sigh and shudder.
They haven’t long to wait at all–Hill House reacts to their presence like a toddler too long ignored. It starts in with a ghost dog luring the men out of the house while the women are terrorized by an invisible entity raising a terrible racket outside their bedrooms; it gives them the de rigueur inexplicable cold spots and self-slamming doors; it writes on the walls, first in chalk, then in blood. Most horribly, it writes a message: “Help Eleanor come home!” There are a number of ways that might be interpreted, but none of them bode well for Eleanor Vance. She’s terrified that the house is singling her out, but that soon changes into a feeling of belonging in (to?) the house. She manages to keep up appearances with the rest of the team, but we’re given insight into the way her mind is running. What’s funny is, she makes it sound so reasonable, even to us–why shouldn’t Eleanor stay at Hill House, the first place she’s ever been wanted or welcomed? Why shouldn’t the lonely, mad woman make a home in the lonely, mad house, if it makes them happy?
Of course, Dr. Montague doesn’t see it that way at all; he decides that the connection between Eleanor and Hill House must be severed immediately and permanently. You can imagine how well that goes over with both the unstable entities involved. The novel comes to an abrupt, unsurprising conclusion shortly after this decision is made; the real shock of it, for me, was how much I felt I, too, was being expelled from Hill House, my exploration of its secrets cut unfairly short.
If I haven’t convinced you to read it yet, let me add that I haven’t even mentioned the funniest and most horrible characters in the story–I couldn’t bear to spoil the effect Mrs. Dudley and Mrs. Dr. Montague have on the story. This is a wonderful book, entirely deserving of its status as a classic of American literature. I’m torn between regret at not having read it years ago, and delight in finally discovering. I guess, on balance, I will settle on being happy that I have finally read The Haunting of Hill House for the first time.
This review is for RIP V.