The haunting of Hill House | Shirley Jackson

Irrelevant I know, but I keep thinking about a fantasy dinner party with Shirley Jackson and Patricia Highsmith. What a dark and messy evening that would be.


Quick summary: Dr Montague, a professor of philosophy and anthropology undertakes a study of a rural mansion, Hill House, which has an impressive track record of suicide and sudden death on its premises and a reputation for being somehow psychologically uninhabitable. He recruits two young women as assistants: the vivacious and alluring Theodora who has extra-sensory and telepathic perception, and Eleanor, a fragile poltergeist veteran. Luke, the dissolute young heir to the house, also joins them. So far, so Jane Austen-ish country house party noir. Things that go bump in the night abound however, but what and why? Non-spoiler alert – no matter how many times you read this book, you still won’t be quite sure.

The title and set-up prepare us for a ghost story, but we get – I don’t know what. Is it about Eleanor, the focal character, or the group, or the house, or the paranormal, or mental disintegration, or family history, or architecture (Shirley was the daughter of a long line of architects after all), or motherlessness (Shirley was the unloved daughter of a cold critical mother after all), or belonging, or what. Would Eleanor like to be more than just good friends with Theodora, and is Theodora that way inclined? (Lesbian readers will I assume answer yes and yes.)  

I re-read ‘The haunting of Hill House’ as soon as I’d finished it, which I never do, and still didn’t know what I’d just read. Like the house’s infuriating design, it took me in a different direction the second time – other doors opening, perplexed, scared, captivated, unable to find my way round. I feel I could read it several more times and still be none the wiser. Even the title is a tease – by whom or what is it actually haunted, if indeed it is? The perverse architecture of Hill House disorientates and discomforts its guests, as does this novel. It takes one form, then another, then veers off somewhere else, like the baffling passages and stairways of the house itself, never leading you quite where you expected to go. When we’re ejected at the end, we’re as bereft as Eleanor is. It’s a horrible place, and we want to stay.   

The prose, psychology, tension, group dynamics, dialogue, all are perfect and superb. Shirley Jackson is a supremely controlling writer. She knows exactly where she wants to take you. You follow her down a corridor, then she slams a door in your face. She plants questions and feeds signs and symbols along the way, then makes you wonder whether you’ve understood anything at all. You are completely at her mercy, though mercy has she none. But still you want to stay.