I stayed up late the last few nights reading Shirley Jackson’s excellent novel The Haunting of Hill House. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and now I’m pondering why it works so well. I’ve come up with the following reasons.
Cast of characters:
Despite many people having been invited to Hill House for Dr Montague’s ‘analysis of supernatural manifestations’, only two arrive, Eleanor Vance and Theodora. They are joined by Luke Sanderson, heir to Hill House. Limiting the cast means we don’t waste time on the unnecessary development of characters that aren’t needed. In the final third they are joined by two additional characters but only because they serve to advance the plot.
Each character has a necessary role so there is no flab, and the relationships between the characters are also crucial in their development.
Eleanor is an excellent protagonist for a haunting because she is carrying emotional baggage upon her arrival, and we are immediately concerned about her ability to carry the additional weight of the Hill House.
There is an attempt to rationalise Hill House’s effect:
Dr Montague is a man of science. Yes the doors of Hill House close by themselves, but this could be a feature of the design, where each angle is slightly off. This is what gives the rooms that unsettling feeling. When cold spots are identified in the rooms, there are suggestions of subterranean waterways. But alongside this, these is so much that cannot be explained, and rather than seeking to disprove a haunting, Montague wants to understand why it is evil.
The effect of the haunting is psychological:
Shirley Jackson shows us the horrors of Hill House, and then we get to experience how it effects the characters, particularly Eleanor (whose first thoughts upon arrival are: “Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.”) This is not a rationale thought, but horror is not a rational genre. In science fiction and crime, characters who follow logic tend to be our heroes and tend to win. The best horror is built upon the emotional reaction, harking back to gothic romanticism. The emotional response to the horror is what engages a reader as we are taken along for a ride with the character.
While all of the characters experience some of the inexpiable horrors of Hill House, it is the effect this has on Eleanor that keeps us interested. Jackson starts subtle, and turns the horror up and we see the effect on Eleanor growing until we reach the conclusion.
I’m giving nothing away, but it’s the only way it can end – the culmination of all that went before. Jan de Bont’s 1999 movie adaptation The Haunting ends with Lili Taylor shouting ‘Go to Hell’ to a ghost, thereby stopping the haunting, while Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta Jones look on.
If you’re interested in horror, haunted houses and the supernatural and you’ve not read The Haunting of Hill House, I urge you to do so.
There’s a new TV adaptation of coming to Netflix soon. The first series will contain 10 episodes. The cast already looks bloated, and the fact that they’re specifying ‘the first series’ suggests that they’ll drag it out and dilute its effect.
I don’t hold out much hope for it getting inside my head the way the book did.