Instead of aiming to terrify, as with the recent Netflix adaptation, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is a slow burn that suffocates readers with an atmosphere of dread.
First published in 1959, The Haunting of Hill House starts off as a straightforward story about a doctor and his eclectic guests moving into a haunted house for the summer, in order to record its weird happenings. Dr. Montague, a scholar searching for scientific evidence of paranormal activity, has settled upon Hill House as his research site, and tracked down two women, the introverted Eleanor and flamboyant Theodora, to be his assistants. Both Eleanor and Theodora have past experiences with the occult, and Hill House is rumored to be haunted by the ghosts of its former residents. Joining the trio is a reckless man named Luke, the heir of Hill House.
Over the course of the first few chapters, readers become acquainted with the house and its new residents through the unreliable perspective of Eleanor, who has recently lost her mother and has no friends outside Hill House. Fast-paced stretches of dialogue lace the story with wit, and break up the protagonist’s musings about loneliness and desire. The characters’ frenetic conversation counterpoints the narrator’s careful detailing of Eleanor’s inner life, and the movement between the two modes is jerky and unsettling.
As the novel unfolds, an unreciprocated love sparks and engulfs the narrative in flames. Grief stricken over the loss of her mother, for whom she served as a caretaker, Eleanor starts to idolize Theodora and imagine what a life with her would be like. Theodora, sensing Eleanor’s dependence on her, begins to pull away from the relationship, to disastrous ends.
Jackson conjures an atmosphere of terror and dread from the novel’s start. Each of the nine chapters consists of a series of cinematic vignettes, written in dense prose full of sharp images and strange turns of phrase. The plot, while not scary, steadily increases in suspense, and ends on a note of desperation. The novel is ridden with opaque symbols, like the house and the hills surrounding it; they tempt but resist analysis, forcing readers to dwell in uncertainty. The Haunting of Hill House seems meant to be experienced more than understood, and the experience is visceral and enduring.