It’s really kind of remarkable that Shirley Jackson is able to give us chills even sixty years after her time, sixty years full of horror movies and CGI and shifting cultural standards pushing the thriller genre further than I’m sure Jackson could have ever imagined. And yet her novel The Haunting of Hill House was downright scary in parts, and spectacularly spooky throughout.
The novel describes a small expedition led by one professor of the paranormal to investigate the reportedly haunted house known as Hill House. He is joined by two interested amateurs, Eleanor and Theodora, and the nephew of the house’s owner, a flighty young man named Luke. But the little group soon finds themselves unsure how to deal with the house’s peculiarities which grow more insidious and sinister the longer they stay.
The book, as I said, is eerie in the extreme, and there were definitely a few times when I wanted the lights very much on. I mean, it’s a book so they have to be on anyway, but you get the point. I really wasn’t expecting that from a book written while Eisenhower was president.
So what’s the secret? As far as I can tell it lies in Jackson’s ability to portray the normal world so realistically and transition so smoothly into the paranormal that we follow along without realizing what is happening. Jackson’s characters are so realistic, even the dialogue rings so true, that the whole thing feels very real. It’s the same sort of thing we find in Jackson’s iconic shorts story, “The Lottery,” which also retains it’s ability to shock and disturb, though that piece didn’t involve any supernatural elements.
Still, Jackson’s paranormal elements are so subtle and woven into the fabric of the realism that they don’t feel unrealistic, entwined as they are with her pitch perfect realism of the non-supernatural parts of the story. The Hill House of the novel is evil not because of any dramatic supernatural explanation, but because that is its character. It is as much a part of the house as the floorboards, and the powerful yet understated haunting is expertly done.
Overall, Jackson is a great writer with an eye for all the right details, able to touch on the anxieties in the human psyche even sixty years removed from her time. Haunting of Hill House is a short but great novel that deserves to be read even today.