Saturday, August 01, 2020
Book review: THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson
I had heard many good things about this novel - Stephen King has praised it - and I had seen the movie adaptations before I finally read it. (Haven't seen the Netflix series, though.)
And I think it's a remarkable piece of fiction - a successful fusion of psychological horror and the "haunted house" story.
The novel centers around the character Eleanor, who starts out with a clear hint of mental problems... and grows increasingly unhinged as she stays in the haunted Hill House. Somehow Hill House comes to haunt Eleanor, until she loses her mind. How this happens is never really explained, but it works perfectly as an uncanny tale.
One detail struck me: Even for a novel written in the late 1950s, all the characters have way too good manners. No one swears, whatever happens - and they're Americans! (I've grown so used to Americans cursing all the "effing" time...)
A recurring theme in THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE is parental issues. Eleanor seems to have been psychologically damaged by having to take care of her sick mother. Hill House was designed by a terrifying, creepy father figure. One character laments that he "never had a mother." I leave it to you to figure out how the parental issues are woven into the haunted house itself...
Another striking subtext - not a value judgment, just an observation - is how "gay" the principal characters are. Not one of the male characters seem the least bit sexually interested in women, but the female ones flirt with each other repeatedly and become infatuated with each other.
(I'm not sure how important this subtext is to the story. In any case I assume it was too sensitive for 1950s audiences and had to be "masked" somewhat.)
As for the ghosts, the reader never gets to see them. Rather it is the house itself that is evil.
THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE is both a psychological thriller about a disturbed, lonely person and a weird, modern ghost story. It will make a lasting impression on you. Highly recommended.
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