The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

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I was told by a few people to read this book, that this book changed their lives and the way they approached horror. Others said that this book is a must read that delivers horror in a way no other book has. High praise indeed! So, I decided to start the journey and I have to say I did quite like it, it was a slow brooding horror that seemed to chill the bones and contort the mind. But having said this, I wasn’t completely sold.

Of course I’d watched the television show which was recently out, which the huge sticker on the front of the book says influenced the show – but I was a little let down by the book (please don’t hit me in the face)- I enjoyed the television show so much that I thought the book would be more in the same vein and style of the show that has spawned a reawakening in the consumption of this novel. It didn’t and I’m going to say I felt a little let down. Just a little mind you as Jackson quickly allayed these feelings of disappointment!

For starters the book is great, I loved the way Shirley Jackson was able to make Hill House come alive, as if the house was a living breathing character all of itself. It’s masterful and shows her brilliance accordingly – from descriptions of the building and her picking out facial elements of the house and transposing this on the structure before our characters gave a sense of brooding and impending horror from the outset. I also enjoyed the way the house seemed to breathe, its unwilling occupants like blood in the veins being pushed around by the ominous presence within.

What makes this book so enjoyable are the characters, each one seems to be hiding something, each is fully realised and adds to the continuing story – subtle layers are added through what they disclose and encounter and this aids in the storytelling elements and ramping up the fear and dread that awaits them around every corner and every room in Hill House. From our main protagonists to the housekeeper and groundsman all add to the mix an eeriness you can’t wash off and when you add that to the ominous character of Hill House – it’s an unnerving encounter you’d have trouble forgetting.

The horror of this book is most certainly supernatural – and it bleeds into each chapter, each new venture our guests go on, an almost dreamlike quality infuses the pages from time-to-time making the reader feel unease and unsure if what they are reading is happening or if it is their imagination running into overdrive from the extenuating circumstances they find themselves thrust into.

I’m not sold completely on The Haunting of Hill House, I understand and can see that it is a great book, but having it heralded as one of the best pieces of horror writing to have been written seems in my opinion too higher praise. There are other books for me that go beyond The Haunting of Hill House‘s summit – Adam Nevill’s The Reddening and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist are above this in my opinion; two books that I read around the same time and had more of an unsettling effect on me.

The story may have been diluted somewhat with watching the television show first, I was expecting all out horror, jumps and scares, grotesque images and things that would haunt me – but instead I got a more subtly laced horror, an intelligent and beguiling one which seeps into your marrow and chills you from the inside out. It wasn’t what I expected but I enjoyed it nevertheless.

The Haunting of Hill House is published by Penguin Modern Classics and is available here.

Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson was born in California in 1916. When her short story The Lottery was first published in the New Yorker in 1948, readers were so horrified they sent her hate mail; it has since become one of the most iconic American stories of all time. Her first novel, The Road Through the Wall, was published in the same year and was followed by Hangsaman, The Bird’s Nest, The Sundial, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, widely seen as her masterpiece. In addition to her dark, brilliant novels, she wrote lightly fictionalized magazine pieces about family life with her four children and her husband, the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. Shirley Jackson died in 1965.

Reviewed by Ross Jeffery

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