I absolutely loved Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a book that found a place on My Best Books of 2020 list. The Haunting of Hill House is also wonderful, and my lovely hardback edition with its striking cover and coloured black edges made for an excellent reading experience.
The Haunting of Hill House is a brilliant, spooky tale; a fascinating blend of the traditional ghost story with psychological horror.
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 itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its 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.
Once again, Jackson enthralls the reader with this superb opening paragraph, and this coupled with the brilliant opening lines of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, prove that she is truly the queen of openings.
UNIQUE CHARACTERS AND BUILD-UP OF HORROR
Coming to the principal characters, we are first introduced to Dr John Montague, professor and researcher of psychic phenomena, who fuelled by intellectual curiosity, decides to rent Hill House for a period of time. Having ascertained that he needs a ‘haunted’ house to prove his theories, Dr Montague settles upon Hill House – its formidable reputation as a dwelling of malevolence and evil fits the bill perfectly. Having taken the permission of the current owners, the Sandersons, Dr Montague sets upon selecting and hiring a couple of assistants for his project.
Using this setup in the first few pages, Jackson provides brief snapshots of the main characters featuring in this novel. First, there’s Eleanor Vance, 32, a lonely young woman who is at the crossroads in her life post the death of her bitter, ailing mother. Burdened with the duty of caring for her, Eleanor’s life so far has been narrow and colourless. She has a married elder sister Carrie, but the two don’t get along at all, and Carrie is particularly patronizing taking pleasure in bossing over Eleanor. We then have Theodora, bright-eyed, belonging to “a world of delight and soft colours”, a sharp contrast to Eleanor’s anxious, reserved personality. The third and last member of Dr Montague’s team is Luke Sanderson, the future heir of Hill House. The Sandersons allow Dr Montague to rent Hill House on the condition that Luke becomes part of his team. Clearly, Luke is a troubled man and his family hopes that some time away will bring his thieving and gambling activities to a halt, if only for a temporary period.
These succinct biographies have hallmarks of Jackson’s typical style – strange, unique and a little fantastic, but because they are presented to us under the guise of Dr Montague’s scientific, methodical process of selection, the reader can’t help but accept it at face value.
But the novel’s pivotal character is none other than Hill House itself. Hill House is huge, ugly, menacing and sinister, a portent of evil, a sentient being. The house’s structure is distorted, it is not built on traditional architectural dimensions, and the effect it produces is capable of disorienting its inhabitants and throwing them off balance.
Once the party is ‘settled’ in the house, their task seems simple – record untoward events or disturbances and make notes, which Dr Montague will later analyse to determine whether there is really any psychic phenomena present, or it’s only an effect of subterranean waters. Jackson is brilliant at creating mood and atmosphere – the fear of the unknown, the mounting tension, the slow build-up of dread, and the uneasiness that creeps up on you. Heavy pounding on the doors, laughing noises, blasts of icy cold air at the entrance to the nursery, messages on the wall written in blood are some of the elements that throw the team off gear and also spook the reader. Dr Montague is compelled to give a warning…
Promise me absolutely that you will leave, as fast as you can, if you begin to feel the house catching at you.
But what makes Hill House haunted in the first place? Dr Montague regales his team with its history… as fascinating and eerie as their present circumstances – a tale that involves the eccentric designer of Hill House (Hugo Crain), a bitter and fractious relationship between two sisters (his daughters), death and suicide.
Hill House has a reputation for insistent hospitality; it seemingly dislikes lettings its guests get away. The last person who tried to leave Hill House in darkness—it was eighteen years ago, I grant you—was killed at the turn in the driveway, where his horse bolted and crushed him against the big tree.
But what of the characters themselves? We know that Eleanor’s life until now has been dreary and lonely. The expedition to Hill House offers the chance of adventure and an escape from her grim circumstances. Earlier on, we are privy to Eleanor’s vivid flights of imagination, especially on her long, arduous drive to Hill House – a state of mind that could possibly offer some clue to subsequent events that unravel in the house. Indeed, for Eleanor, a world of dreams is a far better alternative, a chance to lose herself in another world because the reality of her actual existence is stark and claustrophobic.
What about Theodora? It’s interesting that Theodora’s biography at the beginning does not really tell much about her, no concrete detail is provided other than the fact that she shares an apartment with a friend with whom she has had a quarrel. At one point I did wonder whether Theodora is a figment of Eleanor’s imagination, or her alter-ego, I could not really be sure.
The Haunting of Hill House is laced with broken, destructive families, with particular emphasis on volatile relations between women, notably sisters. Just like in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the idea of sisterhood is central to this novel. Eleanor has a strained relationship with her elder sister, the animosity between the two Crain sisters forms one of the slippery foundations of what makes Hill House such a malevolent, monstrous place. But the crux really is the shaky relationship between Eleanor and Theodora which veers wildly from easy camaraderie and friendship to sudden quarrels, further exacerbated by Eleanor’s jealousy and rage and Theodora’s cruelty and suspicious nature.
The second theme is fear – how fear makes an individual vulnerable and malleable, easily influenced by fantastic events which would otherwise have been dismissed by the rational, thinking mind.
“Fear,” the doctor said, “is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns. We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway.”
Isolation, loneliness is the other core theme explored in this novel particularly through Eleanor’s persona. A friendless, isolated woman, Eleanor finds some modicum of acceptance and happiness at Hill House, even if the house is not receptive to its inhabitants. She opens up in a way she would not have thought possible. Somewhere she is also ridden with guilt, palpable in the way allusions to her mother keep popping up. She is a complex woman, afraid of being alone and yet her flights of fancy indicate that she prefers a life of seclusion and solitude.
THE STRANGENESS OF JACKSON’S REALM
Jackson does a marvellous job of subverting the readers’ expectations. Is this a straightforward horror story or is there a psychological angle to it?
It is so cold, Eleanor thought childishly; I will never be able to sleep again with all this noise coming from inside my head; how can these others hear the noise when it is coming from inside my head? I am disappearing inch by inch into this house, I am going apart a little bit at a time because all this noise is breaking me; why are the others frightened?
We are never quite sure of the dynamics between Dr Montague, Luke, Theo and Eleanor, their interactions sometimes appear as unbalanced as the house they occupy; the reader feels the same sense of disorientation as the characters. Many a time, Eleanor feels like she belongs, that she is an integral part of the team, but there are other times when she perceives herself an outsider, and thinks the others are talking behind her back. Guillermo del Toro states in his introduction aptly states that the haunting in Hill House feels real and everyone within it is alone, trapped in their own minds and blind to the plight of others.
Despite a narrative charged with tension and menace, moments of comedy shine through. For instance, the deadpan refrains delivered by the dour, inflexible Mrs Dudley sends the team into fits of laughter at one point, even drawing out a chuckle from this reader. The late entry of Mrs Montague (Dr Montague’s wife) considerably livens things up. Her domineering attitude coupled with her so-called empathy for the lost souls roaming Hill House make for some hilarious conversations with her husband.
Jackson truly excels at creating rich, striking imagery. There is one extraordinary scene where after a quarrel, Eleanor and Theo head out of the house for a walk in the dark against their better instincts. The scene around them is all black and white – a dark road winding through a pitch black sky with luminous white trees dotting the landscape. It’s a scene drained of all colour, both girls walk side-by-side, completely immersed in their own thoughts until they suddenly come upon a vibrant picnic scene bursting with a slew of colours. And then Theo spots something utterly frightening, screams, and the two girls run for dear life back to the house.
They perceived at the same moment the change in the path and each knew then the other’s knowledge of it; Theodora took Eleanor’s arm and, afraid to stop, they moved on slowly, close together, and ahead of them the path widened and blackened and curved. On either side of them the trees, silent, relinquished the dark color they had held, paled, grew transparent and stood white and ghastly against the black sky. The grass was colorless, the path wide and black; there was nothing else.
The Haunting of Hill House, then, is a wonderfully written, fluid, layered story of isolation, loneliness, horror and fear, ambiguous enough to throw up a lot of questions and unsettle the reader.
To learn what we fear is to learn who we are. Horror defies our boundaries and illuminates our souls.
Having now read both Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I do think the latter is the better of the two, but that does not make the former any less brilliant.