Book Review: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

October is all about spooky reads and horror movies. At least it is for me. For our first Book Club read, LBR chose the theme “Mystery”. I chose to interpret it a bit broadly as “Mystery, Magic, and Madness” because why not. And I couldn’t think of any book that so perfectly embodies all three other than “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson.

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.

I watched the Netflix series of the same name when it came out. It is based on the novel, but the story is vastly different. It does have all the key elements of the novel – especially the main one. This is a ghost story without the ghosts. It is a genre-defining novel that laid the groundwork for the psychological horror and the haunted house subgenres. Stephen King mentions in his book Danse Macabre, that The Haunting of Hill House is one of “the only two great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years”.

The book is inspired by a group of 19th century ‘psychic’ researchers who rented a house they believed to be haunted. Much like those researchers, one of the main characters in our book rents Hill House purely to ascertain whether or not it is haunted and maybe how haunted exactly. The other characters, including our protagonist Eleanor Vance, are recruited by Dr. John Montague to help with the research. What enfolds once they are all in the house is the stuff of nightmares that have no shape or form. The psychological tension builds and builds as you keep reading and the ending is quite haunting.

The book also has one of the best opening paragraphs of any book I’ve ever read, especially any from the horror genre:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood 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.”

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