“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
So begins The Haunting of Hill House, one of Shirley Jackson’s more renown works. And a piece of literature, if you are not familiar, let me kindly introduce you.
Throw some fresh pinewood on the fire, refill your mug with tea, and have a protein snack nearby…you won’t be leaving your chair for awhile once you begin this tale.
Eleanor Vance is a quiet, unassuming “good daughter” who has cared for her invalid mother for eleven years. Endless bowls of soup, piles of soiled laundry, and fragments of guilt have permeated every facet of Eleanor’s world. Losing her identity after her mother dies, she goes to live with her sister, and her family, which consists of a bratty niece and a condescending brother-in-law. But Eleanor has a secret. And a driver’s license.
After being contacted by Dr. Montague, a psychologist who is researching the authenticity of a truly haunted house, she stealthy
steals borrows her sister’s car (a car she insists she paid half to purchase) and drives to a remote location outside of Boston. Despite her mousey appearance and servant lifestyle, Eleanor has some strong psychic abilities and the last lines of a poem logged in her soul ( “Journeys end in lovers meeting). Ultimately, she is sustained by these two characteristics and soon arrives at the gates of Hill House.
Looking at this arrival as a vacation, which she has never experienced, Eleanor throws herself whole heartedly into the experiment at hand. She also meets her fellow paranormal partner, Theodora, an eccentric artist who shows both sweet and sadistic sides to her personality. Luke Sewell, a family member of the home owner’s is there to provide insurance that the house is not being trashed, appears as a slightly entitled but hapless you man who alternately flirts with and disregards Eleanor. And Dr. Montague’s introduction is much like the benevolent wizard who controls the players; nothing to dangerous…at first, lest they lose their powers too soon.
Over drinks in the parlor, Dr. Montague conjures images of a house with well-intentions but a detestable fate. From the carriage crash that kills the lady of the house before she ever sets eyes upon its Gothic turrets to the two bickering sisters who fought over the gilded dishes. And of course, the unpleasantness with the caretaker…
The house also appears to change shape as hallways extend to nothingness and doors lead to rooms previously unnoticed. As Eleanor’s distortion grows, so does her sharpened skills and perceptions. Who is Dr. Montague, really? Can she trust Theodora, whom she had called “cousin?” Could Luke be her one true love who has been waiting for her at the end of the journey? What truly is lurking just outside in the garden? And who (or what) keeps writing chalk dust messages about her returning home?
Psychologically, the story races around dark corners and into hidden passageways, providing one of the most enjoyable rides in literary fiction. Jackson was a master of deep, inner dialogue with a passion for the black side of humanity and plays it beautifully, even beyond the final sentence.
As preserved as coffin flowers, this story rings as true at it did over fifty years ago when first published. For a devilishly delightful and atmospheric read, look no further than this tale.
Bonus: The 1962 move version is also fantastic!
Until the next storm rolls in…