The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I've read Shirley Jackson (the short stories about her children and We Have Always Lived In the Castle are particular favorites) but I had never read this.
I watched the 1999 movie; and I just watched the Netflix series. (And the Netflix series is amazing, wonderful, not enough good words.) The Netflix series is not a "faithful" adaptation in terms of plot, but it is in terms of emotion and setting and creating a creepy/scary setting. It inspired me to finally read the book -- and because of my long commute, I elected for the audio version.
The Haunting of Hill House has supernatural happenings, but they are more about how folks react to what happens than they are about gore. It's scary, yes, to have a weird knocking on the door, but what pushes it over is how the folks are reacting to it.
The setup: Dr Montague writes about hauntings, he's heard that Hill House is haunted, so he arranges to spend the summer there and invites those who he believes will be "sensitive" to the haunting/spirits/supernatural. Two accept, Eleanor and Theodora. The owner of the house -- who doesn't live there -- insists a family member is also there, so Luke rounds out the group. Later on, Dr Montague's wife and her friend, Arthur, join them. The housekeeper and groundskeeper take care of the house but don't live there.
Hill House is haunted: the beginning and ending of the book tell us that. And it's Eleanor who tells us the story, Eleanor we become most acquainted with, and Eleanor, we learn from the start, has an active imagination about what is around her and about her own story. She sees a house and imagines she lives there; she answers a question with the life she thinks she wants (or the life she thinks will impress.) Eleanor reacts to Hill House, and the questions are, is the house reaching out to Eleanor? Was it waiting for her, to take her make her a part of it? Or -- is it just a house, with an odd layout, and is Eleanor unreliable? Is she telling us a story? And of course both are possible. Eleanor can be fragile, even before she gets to Hill House, and Hill House can be haunted.
What I didn't expect from the book was humor. For example: Mrs. Montague believes she is the most sensitive to hauntings, yet she doesn't see or sense the actual hauntings. (Or is this more evidence that incidents so far are things that Eleanor either did or exaggerated?)
Mrs. Montague's appearance also shifts how the reader sees her husband. Without her around, he can be the expert, the one who tells people what to do. She supports his investigations, yes, but she doesn't fawn over him. In addition to being funny, it also shifts how the reader sees him. This is another thing Jackson does brilliantly: how people are presented, the little things that are shown and done to shift what you think about them.
There are some dated things in here, which is one of the reason's I'm glad the Netflix series did what it did. It's a small thing, but the book is from 1959 and much is made of Eleanor feeling rebellious by buying two pairs of slacks. (For the record, I'm also annoyed by the "father doesn't let mother wear slacks" moment from another book and another favorite author.) On the one hand, it's good to be reminded what women were up against in 1959 when slacks was so edgy and not the done thing.
I also didn't like how some of the humor was from Mrs. Montague being the "bossy" wife. Even today, it's a bit of a sitcom trope, the great husband whose wife is shrill and henpecks and dismissive, which is both "ha ha at the bossy lady" and "ugh, women." In thinking about this, I've decided that it isn't Jackson's statement about women or wives: it's Eleanor's viewpoint, her interpretation of those dynamics.
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