Horror Novel Review: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

I tend to be a bit squeamish about horror, but I’ve dipped my toe into the genre a couple times and have found things to like there. Because of said squeamishness, I don’t know much about the genre classics apart from whatever has filtered down through the general culture, but when one of r/Fantasy’s many book clubs decided to celebrate spooky season [Ed.: this review is being posted four months after I actually read the book. I feel shame] by reading Shirley Jackson’s seminal The Haunting of Hill House, I decided to knock a classic off the list. 

The Haunting of Hill House, as the title suggests, is a haunted house novel. And after reading it, I wouldn’t object to calling it the haunted house novel. It’s a short book about a professor with research interests in the paranormal renting out the notoriously haunted Hill House for a short period one summer. Joining him is a representative from the owner’s family and a pair of women he’s sought out specifically because of their history with the paranormal. Eleanor, the lead, is among these two. Hauntings ensue. 

The Haunting of Hill House is a hard book to review, because it’s willing to linger so much in ambiguity that it can be hard to find solid ground to stand on—I found myself questioning even the most basic facts about the novel. But at the same time, it’s hard to deny it’s absolutely masterful at much of what it does. 

For a book that was written well before I was born, I was surprised by how easily it was to sink into the storytelling. I often find myself struggling to immerse in the storytelling techniques of fantasy from as recently as the 80s and 90s, yet The Haunting of Hill House was immediately immersive. It was also surprisingly funny, with the cast bantering back and forth and making light of the danger—not out of dismissiveness but in an attempt to balance the weight of Hill House’s presence. 

But mostly, it’s creepy, uncanny, disorienting, nightmarish. The descriptors you’d expect apply and apply well. The design of the house itself instills a sense of wrongness, and there is a haunting that gets increasingly scary as the book progresses. 

But it’s hard to separate the haunting from the mental deterioration of the lead, which feels in many ways like the central thrust of the book. Yes, it’s scary, and that’s a testament to how Jackson can build tension. But it’s a fascinating character study of a woman who has spent her life under the thumb of overbearing and unappreciative family members, looking for a place to belong and finding herself in an eclectic quartet in a haunted house. There is so much character development packed into a 200-page horror novel, and it’s just as exceptionally done as the scares.

While in multiple ways exceptional, The Haunting of Hill House does demand a lot from the reader. There’s no particular opacity in the prose, but the perspective is another story. Eleanor just isn’t especially reliable, as she demonstrates in the early chapters with obvious lies about small matters, and as the book progresses, it becomes harder and harder to parse out what’s real and what’s unrecognizably skewed by her perspective. Even at the height of the confusion, it stays scary, and Eleanor as a character remains fascinating—in fact, I might argue that her character is revealed more reliably as her account of events becomes less reliable—but the disorientation can certainly pose a barrier to immersion and make it harder to sit back and enjoy the ride. 

There were times in the back half of the novel when I wondered whether a spiral into incoherence was the point, leaving the reader emerging as from a nightmare, wondering what exactly just happened. Without doubt, there are elements of the nightmare, and an ending that left me with a whole host of questions. But even in the lingering ambiguity, the ending in many ways snapped back to emphatic clarity, providing a true emotional climax as opposed to frightening fodder for further imagination. Even if I felt adrift at times in the later stages, the ending brought me back, leaving me speechless in the good way.

Given my trepidation about the genre, I wasn’t too sure how I’d feel about The Haunting of Hill House, even given its towering reputation. But it worked the atmosphere wonderfully, while largely avoiding the gore and body horror I find distasteful, painting a terrifying portrait of a haunted house and a fabulous character study besides. There may have been moments where I drifted away, but in the end, it was easy to see how it earned its classic status. 

Recommended if you like: psychological horror.

Can I use it for BingoIt’s hard mode for Horror and was hard mode for Book Club. And there’s a decent chance that if you haven’t read it, it’s at the Bottom of the TBR.

Overall rating: 18 of Tar Vol’s 20. Five stars on Goodreads.

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