Saturday, October 31, 2009

Jackson's Haunted Hill House

New York; Toronto: Penguin, 2006, c1959.
182 p.

So, for my last choice for the RIP Challenge this year I finished the classic Haunting of Hill House, just in time. I am glad I finished it before the sun went down; it is the expectation, the waiting for something horrific to occur that I found to be the scariest part of this reading experience.

For anyone who doesn't know the premise of this novel, it is as follows:

Dr. John Montague desperately wants to find a real haunted house to study, and comes across Hill House. He writes to many people who have had some supernatural experience in their lives hoping that some of them will take him up on his offer to spend time in Hill House as his assistants. Only two do: Eleanor, a 32 yr old single woman who has spent her life caring for her mother, now deceased; and Theodora, a free spirited woman who is taking a break from her partner after nasty words were exchanged. Along with these two, a member of the family who owns Hill House, Luke Sanderson, joins in and they all spend a week together waiting for something to happen. The house itself is "not sane" -- built so that all angles and surfaces are not quite even, the architecture itself unsettles the group. The house seems to know who the weakest link is, and aims right for her. The housekeeper is creepy but refuses to stay in Hill House after dark, and as things begin to heat up, the nights get quite terrifying.

Jackson is very adept at writing in a polished and calm manner which belies what is really going on. Each character thinks they are handling the pressure well; only through various exchanges do we see their private fears revealed. Psychological terror is key -- each of them is waiting for something to happen, and even when something does occur, not all of them experience it. Is it real? It is a mental projection? The uncertainty adds to the fear, and there are some bloodcurdling scenes, as when Eleanor grips Theodora's hand in the night trying to stay calm in the face of noises at the door - except when she screams and the light goes on she sees that Theodora is just waking up, in her own bed.

This classic is written in the tradition of literary ghost stories, and as such does not have overt scenes of horror or gore. That's what I like about it -- the horror is all psychological, and though I read it and didn't think it had affected me, when I was thinking about it later, at night, in the dark, it began to really creep me out. I could admire the excellent writing while I was reading it, but the atmosphere of the book is truly frightening. Hill House is quite a creation, and it is most definitely the main character, determined to get its way. Well worth reading after all this time, this was the perfect novel with which to celebrate Halloween and the end of this year's RIP Challenge.


  1. I love the ones that creep up on you at night. Great review.

  2. I read it once years AFTER I saw the movie (the original movie) that absolutely terrified me. I don't know why I thought I could read the book without being freaked out too. I couldn't sleep for weeks after without a light on.

    At this point I remember very little except the effect on me. But I DO remember that scene about the hand holding. (shiver)

  3. I really want to read this eventually, but I haven't got that far yet!

  4. Great review~~ I'm actually about 1/2 way through this one, but I've got a few others going as well --very good.

  5. I just finished this one this morning. I agree about the psychological terror, although I was a little disappointed in the ending. I much prefer We Have Always Lived in the Castle...I think it has more of a creep factor.

  6. I read this one a few years ago and you're review has made me feel like picking it up again! Arg!

  7. I would really like to read this one! I think psychological horror is the most effective of all, so I'll be prepared to be a little freaked out.

  8. John - I was surprised that it stayed with me, but enjoyably so - I don't mind being a bit creeped out by literature ;)

    maryb - everyone I've mentioned it to, whether they've read it or seen the original film, all mention the handholding scene!

    Kailana - I know, there are so many that I want to read, I wish I could read twice as fast as I do

    Diane - hope you got to finish this one and that you enjoyed it!

    softdrink - I was actually a bit disappointed in the ending as well...felt a little like she just had to end it somehow...but otherwise I really liked it. Glad to hear that We have always lived in the Castle is even better - I still have that ahead to savour.

    Melanie - Isn't it awful when your rereading list is getting almost as long as the tbr? ;)

    Dorothy- it's not as spooky as some I've read but has a definite strength when it comes to describing the characters' mental states, very well done.

  9. I love Jackson's subtleties and like the way you put it "very adept at writing in a polished and calm manner which belies what is really going on." The calm juxtaposed with the mounting suspense is eerie and effective.

  10. Wow, I read this exactly at the same time you were reading it.
    I found it to be a difficult read -- understanding wise.
    I think a reader should understand a bit about poltergeist-ism first, before reading this. Eleanor is CAUSING these manifestations -- and at the same time, as you mention, and as the book mentions on the first page as well as the last, the house ITSELF is not sane.
    This is very important to realize, as a reader reads this eerie thing!


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