by Shirley Jackson
208 pages, Penguin Modern Classics, 1959
Review by Bill Kirton
I’ve always wanted to be scared by things I read, scared in the way I was when I first saw the shower scene in Psycho or when the razor blade sliced the eyeball in Un Chien Andalou but, despite the fact that I actually prefer the experience of reading to that of watching a movie, I can’t remember it happening. I’ve fallen in love with female characters, felt the exhilaration of combat, been breathless in eleventh hour escapes, willingly suspended disbelief to accept all sorts of creatures and anthropomorphic impossibilities, but I can’t recall being scared. So when I read that Stephen King thought The Haunting of Hill House was ‘one of the finest horror novels of the late 20th century’ and that someone in the Wall Street Journal wrote that it was ‘widely regarded as the greatest haunted-house story ever written’, I knew I had to try it.
It’s not very long and has just four main characters. At the invitation of Dr Montague, they all gather at Hill House, which has a fearsome reputation as a result of the nasty things that have happened there in the past. Montague has chosen them because they’ve been involved in some way in supposed paranormal events in their own lives with the exception of Luke, who’s heir to the property, although the family doesn’t live there. Most of the narrative centres around Eleanor, who’s had a wasted life looking after her sick mother and whose previous supernatural experience involved poltergeist phenomena. The party’s made up by another woman, Theodora. There’s comic-ish relief in the form of a housekeeper, Mrs Duncan, and Montague’s wife and a friend, who arrive later laden with investigative paranormal paraphernalia but, unlike all the others, seemingly unable to hear the noises and spirits or feel the cold spots and other features which manifest themselves (or not).
And that’s it. There were the usual anticipatory chills, the presentiments of evil goings-on, a story of an unhappy child, an unexplained cold spot outside the nursery, doors banging, strange messages appearing on walls. And it’s all very well and carefully written. But, after nights of (apparent) terror, they’re all up bright and early, making jokes about it, strolling in the garden, playing croquet and speculating about how the house itself is the ‘presence’, having been deliberately designed not to conform to normal specifications and layout. It’s entertaining enough but not remotely scary. Nothing is ever ‘explained’, which is fair enough, but the uncertainties about whether anyone other than Eleanor experienced these events and whether she was in fact responsible for them, as she might have been for her previous poltergeist experiences, remain unresolved. The ending is tragic-ish, but those who survive go away without any real evidence that spending a few days in this place which has such a dark reputation has been anything more than a week in the country.
OK, I’m not a believer in ghosts or deities or fairies, but I know there are more layers to our experience than those which we can rationalise, so I accept the possibility of magic. This book seems to me to have all the normal ingredients of a classic ghost story which are handled with subtlety but never convince. It’s far more than a ghost train ride but at base, it’s unsatisfactory. The characterisation of the participants contributes to the tensions and fears they all share, but I found myself skipping paragraphs and nothing frightened me. That also seemed to be the case with the characters, with the possible (but only possible) exception of Eleanor; they all recovered quickly from the night’s events and ate hearty breakfasts.
But Stephen King said it’s good and he must be right because he knows the subject better than most, so I guess all this proves is that I have a blind spot when it comes to ghost stories or maybe I’m just plain insensitive. I’m not saying that it’s a bad book – far from it – but, for me, it didn’t live up to the reputation that others have loaded onto it.