The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Before you go any further: spoilers.

You can file me safely in that category of people who wished things weren’t down to psychology, or eeriness. I’m one of those wishing the Big Horrible Creepy Thing turned out to be a Genuine Nasty Gribbly instead of human psychology / implied horrors – or then again, that could ruin the tension. Even the sort of weirdness you’d get in The House on the Borderland seems preferable in my mind, and generates a real fear. I found myself trying to explore why this might be, but I didn’t find a satisfactory answer.

Though, back to this novel: I love the mood, the suspense, the human interaction, the general teasing and cleverness of Shirley Jackson’s writing in The Haunting of Hill House. Over to wiki for the plot summary, kids:

Hill House is an eighty year-old mansion built by a man named Hugh Crain. The story concerns four main characters: Dr. John Montague, an investigator of the supernatural; two young women, Eleanor, who is shy, resents having lived as a recluse who cared dutifully for her demanding invalid mother for years, and Theodora; and a young man, Luke, the heir to Hill House, who is host to the others.

Things happen. Lots goes bump in the night. The events are given the ‘scientific’ treatment, in order to give the reader buy-in that this is ZOMG really happening. Jackson certainly has a deft way with characters, a soft and subtle touch, which is something to be admired. She creates a wonderfully evocative mood here, building up the layers of anticipation and dread. The gothic manor house – Hill House – is described wonderfully, in all its multi-dimensional glory, with a good deal of foreshadowing – and perhaps my problem was that it felt almost too calculated a description at times, something very much by the recipe book. I liked the fading away of Eleanor, her gradual disconnection from the group and her eventual madness, but sometimes you just want a weird monster to come along and sort things out.

So it’s a classic haunted house tale as an analysis of a young girl going steadily mad. I wasn’t hugely impressed, but then again I wasn’t disappointed either.

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.


  1. Sometimes I really enjoy a psychological thriller. it’s a weird house, things go bump in the night, people start getting scared. . .sure, that’s the usual formula, but that’s OK with me.

    thanks for taking the time to read and post about this book, even though it didn’t turn out to be super awesome wonderful for you. . . i’ve just added it to my list.

  2. I know what you mean re. real scary vs psychological scary. It’s similar to how I often prefer real Fantasy – the fantastic for its own sake – to Magic Realist style fantastic-things-used-mainly-for-figurative-power. Just as the sheer joy of wonder itself isn’t secondary to intellectualising it, neither is the excitement of a visceral scare less worthy than something more subtle.

    Real fear is a tailbrain thing, instinctual. The other type is powerful, worthwhile, enjoyable in narrative but a different kettle of fish altogether.

    However, one thing I really love about May Sinclair’s weird fiction is that it psychology with the more straightforward uncanny: the former isn’t just a slightly disappointing explanation for the latter for instance, it’s used to make it more effective.

  3. Hi readhead – thanks for stopping by. I did enjoy the predictability as well, if that makes sense, but I hope you enjoy it a little more than I did.

    Alex – ah, I thought you might share the sentiment. “Just as the sheer joy of wonder itself isn’t secondary to intellectualising it, neither is the excitement of a visceral scare less worthy than something more subtle.” Absolutely agree.

    I’ve not read any of May Sinclair – I’ll have to investigate. Anything you recommend?

  4. I hoped you might ask that! ‘Where Their Fire Is Not Quenched’ is my favourite. It’s more sad and disturbing than overtly shocking/tense but still my favourite Modernist ‘horror’ story. I think it’s the lack of ambiguity: the supernatural/afterlife is unequivocally real (unlike in say ‘The Turn of the Screw’), but it’s inextricable from the human story, the psychological examination of the characters (just like in ‘The Turn of the Screw’. We’re haunted by ourselves but we’re not just haunted by ourselves, if that makes any sense. There’s a copy online here: http://www.horrormasters.com/Text/a0740.pdf

    Kipling wrote bloody good horror/weird stories too, by the way!

  5. Thanks for the link, Alex – I’ll check that out.

    I’ve got the Masterworks collection of Kipling’s stories, so hopefully there’ll be some good stuff in there. I know Gaiman was a big fan of his.