I remember tucking into H P Lovecraft for the first time and being somewhat disappointed that many of his stories, one after the other, did not reveal to me a detailed, perfect picture of every monster under every bed, or deep in every crack in the walls. I, so used to Hollywood horror, wanted to be frightened to my wits end by something obvious and explained. Why did this killer or that do this thing or that, where did this monster come from? What ancient burial ground was disturbed beneath the earth before a new house was built to be infested with spirits?
Who knew that by continuing on this path and devouring the Necromanicon, I could find in the dark something much more terrifying than anything dragged violently into the light of day; that by not explaining the series of spine tingling events that transpired in this story or that, my imagination would fill in the blanks and that this would always, without fail, be far more terrifying than not.
The Haunting Of Hill House, a novel by Shirley Jackson is a perfect example of a mystery being just as frightening as a revelation. I sought in its pages an explanation for literally anything and found none, but as frustrating as that may be, the story was beguiling, intriguing and disturbing. Yes, I believe the word disturbing should be one of the first to describe this story of oddball characters brought together in search of paranormal phenomena; not simply because it is relayed by an unreliable narrator, nor that it is filled with those tropes you would associate with Gothic horror, but because one could read this novel several times and every time believe that something different had happened.
The story begins with Dr Montague, a graduate in philosophy and anthropology who uses his education to somewhat legitimize his studies in paranormal phenomena and believes that one day, upon the publication and success of his “definitive work on the causes and effects of psychic disturbances on a house commonly known as haunted” he would finally be taken seriously.
In the pursuit of this venture Dr Montague found a house he believed to fit his criteria and then sought to find people who had some connection to psychic phenomena to accompany him. He compiled a list of “perhaps a dozen names” and invited them all to spend all or part of the summer “observing and exploring the various and unsavory stories which had been circulated about the house for most of its eighty years of existence”
Of those twelve, four replied and two backed out at the last minute. The other two came, Eleanor Vance and “just” Theodora. A representative of the Sanderson family who owned the house was sent to overlook proceedings and of course Dr Montague himself would attend. Other than those four visitors, there were the Dudleys, a married couple who worked on the house but only during daylight hours, never after dark.
The cast of characters are quirky, witty and playful, they converse lightly over the events of previous nights that some would describe as terrifying, they play chess and drink whiskey and lay by the fire, they make up stories to pass the time and quietly mock the Dudleys for their serious attitudes. They begin as a group one would happily spend an evening with over drinks and fine conversation, but as the story develops their true nature is revealed and the house, somewhat a character in and of itself, becomes more ominous and unavoidably evil.
Back to what I mentioned before, the story can be taken in many ways; perhaps Eleanor is sick. She mentioned letting her mother die alone, she steals her sisters car to run away and visit a supposedly haunted house then latches on to another guest and invites herself home with them. She’s paranoid, has mood swings and laughs hysterically in the face of danger. It is possible that the book is meant to be taken as an account of her slowly slipping into madness, which would not be unlike several of the characters in Jackson’s other works. Mental illness and the effects it has on isolated characters is a common thread in Jackson’s stories and even her own life, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that she had intended on this being the story of a haunted person as opposed to that of a haunted house.
Or perhaps Hill House really is haunted, there are creepy songs about murder, tall tales of child abuse and a suicide to lend themselves to such a theory but very little is actually seen. Theo believes she saw something outside in the dark, something that shook her to her core and sent her running and screaming, warning Nell (Eleanor) not to look back. Otherwise a lot of banging and a cold spot in one of the rooms but not enough for Dr Montague to publish a comprehensive book about.
Yet another way the book may be interpreted is that the house, haunted by something truly evil, so wrong and vile, that it has seeped into the very walls, drives all of Dr Montague’s guests to madness. They all change somewhat throughout the story, become less patient, less understanding, selfish and motivated by lust or vanity... my personal take, is that Eleanor, whose eyes we saw the events through, misread their intentions and believed they were all out to get her, though I am undecided as to whether the house consciously or intentionally played a part.
The Haunting Of Hill House is one of those rare treasures that sticks with you for long after you’ve finished reading, this perhaps is why its story has been explored and developed in so many adaptations. I think it’s the element of the unknown that makes it so difficult to budge from your subconscious, unanswered questions have a tendency to do that.
There have been three adaptations of the story, two movies and a Netflix television series, all of which have taken different aspects of the plot to shape their own take. (Many other works have been inspired by the story, see House On Haunted Hill original and remake)
The 1963 movie The Haunting was much more of a straight laced horror, bringing to the forefront of the story, things that go bump in the night and relying heavily on the idea that the house is haunted and knowingly so.
The remake in 1999 of the same name, had a slightly different take, suggesting that Eleanor had ties to the house she didn’t know, with lookalike mistresses and... well the house was beautiful and Catherine Zeta Jones was very well cast in the role of Theo.
The closest adaptation is not an adaptation at all. The Netflix series The Haunting Of Hill House follows a family as they struggle to come to terms with the death of their mother when they were children. They lived in Hill House and the children share the names of the original characters, Eleanor, Luke, Theo... but they’re not the same characters, it’s not the same story and yet somehow it encapsulates everything that makes the book so frightening and so enthralling. Also there are a ton of cool references and call backs to the original book in the series and fans of one or the other should definitely enjoy both.
I won’t lie and say I don’t still feel slightly frustrated with the mystery here. I don’t know what happened in the house or why it’s supposedly evil, which is why I’ve come to the conclusion that it wasn’t. I watched the series after reading half of the book and looked for explanation in both, side by side, a failed venture but an enjoyable read, one I would delve into again.
Check out my deep dive into the writer of this novel, Shirley Jackson HERE
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