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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The library copy I read
The Haunting of Hill House (1959) by Shirley Jackson is a wonderfully creepy story. Are houses haunted by nature or nurture? In the case of Hill House, it just might be both. Add some human psyches and you're in for a ride. This is one of those books that is so well written that it took me awhile to pick up another novel--my mind needed time to digest the story before taking in more food.

I've been checking out books at the same library for five years now. I know the circulation librarian by name and we chat, but he's never before remarked on any book I've checked out. He gushed over The Haunting of Hill House. He told me that Jackson's We Have Always Lived In a Castle is also an excellent read. Other than her short story "The Lottery" I don't recall reading anything else by Jackson. I definitely plan to read more of her now.

My motivation for reading Hill House was Stephen King. After recently re-reading Carrie I was reading about King on the internet and saw somewhere that he was greatly influenced by The Haunting of Hill House, which some consider the greatest horror story of the twentieth century. [Two movies have been made based on the story, one in 1963 and one in 1999. Netflix has both.] There are some direct connections between The Haunting of Hill House and some of King's stories--stones falling on a house (Carrie), twin girls (The Shining)--and probably more subtle ones, too.

What I loved about this book is the subtle psychological manipulation of the reader that makes the story feel so alive. Its that visceral reaction that you have when being swept up in haunted house story to the point where you think the walls of the room you're sitting in are moving. Or you think you hear something shuffling through your house and you're home alone, with the dog or cat lying next to you on the couch. And there's the confusion of the reader's shifting loyalties: at first I was rooting for the doctor and his helpers, then for the house, and in the end I was rooting for both at the same time. Weird.

Hill House has a reputation for being haunted. Dr. Montague rents the house for the summer in order to study it, scientifically. He's invited people to join him who have been receptive to paranormal activity in the past. Only two women accept. The forth member of the group is the nephew of the owner of the home who is to eventually inherit the house.

I won't say more than that. I recommend you not read any plot summaries. Just pick up the book, start reading, and experience it for yourself. Its only 246 pages. Here's the first paragraph to whet your appetite:
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 has 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.

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