The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House is the first book I’ve completed for my RIP event over at Stainless Steel Droppings (and for those of you who haven’t yet signed up there’s plenty of time to do so.  Details here) and I thought it was great.

Now, firstly I should probably point out that this book was written in the late 50s and so if you’re expecting some sort of horror along the lines of the most recent movie then you’ll probably be disappointed.  (Although I would say that the earlier black and white version does a much better job of portraying the book – even if it doesn’t appeal to horror fans.  (Basically, think along the lines of reading I am Legend and then comparing it to the recent movie – not really anything alike).

For me, this was much more psychological and, if you’ve already read other Jackson stories this will probably ring true for you.

Hill House starts off as an experiment by Dr Montague.  He invites people who he thinks have psychic abilities to come and stay at Hill House, which he believes to be haunted, to see and record their various experiences.  Two of these people respond.  Eleanor and Theodora.  Luke, the heir apparent also joins the cosy little party.

There’s such a lot that I enjoyed about this story.  Jackson is excellent at setting up characters.  Eleanor is, of course, the main character.  She’s lead a strange and inhibited life.  At the constant beck and call of her mother and since her mother’s death seemingly living in the shadow of her sister. At the opposite end we have Theodora with her extrovert nature, beautiful and flippant and frankly the complete opposite of the shrinking violet Eleanor.  Step into their lives two different males characters.  Dr Montague, who acts like the fatherly, wise teacher to the group – although he seems a little out of his own comfort zone – and Luke, who seems to be the object or toy of Theodora’s attention.

So, all of these characters diverge upon Hill House – the only other characters are the gatekeeper/groundsman and his wife – both leave the property locked when they go at 6.00 pm (or when it goes dark – and, by the way, they can’t hear the inhabitants screams from where they live!).  There seems to be a sort of hysteria about Hill House with the villagers – who simply don’t acknowledge it’s presence, let alone speak of it.  Even Eleanor, upon arrival, has an overwhelming fear of the house.  It’s shape, it’s proportions, the way it seems to watch her.

As you read the story you wonder how much of this is a ghost story and how much is a prank on the part of someone else and yet certain of the occurrences can’t so simply be explained away.  All of the guests experience something strange and yet Eleanor seems to be the target.

Is it simply that Eleanor is a little unhinged herself?  I’m not sure even now and am going round in circles thinking about it.  She certainly seemed to lack anything of her own and seemed to come into her own at Hill House.  I definitely had a few moments of thinking maybe she was the perpetrator of certain ‘elements’ of the story in order to gain attention yet as the book progresses I began to think that her behaviour was as a result of the house and certainly some of her thoughts were quite strange to read.

Everything about the house is evil, apparently.  It was built at strange angles so that everything you see is not quite where it should be.  All the doors mysteriously shut by themselves as they seem to be hung on a slant.  The contents are dark and they add to the general feel of foreboding.  The rooms fan out from a central location with no apparent reason, lots of doors from each room lending an overall impression of confusion.

The long story short on this one is simply was Eleanor paranoid delusional or was she influenced by the house.  Given the last thoughts in the book I think the latter but let me know what you think.

This is definitely a good read.  It’s not horrendous or terrible but it definitely has it’s chilling moments and seeing how Eleanor develops and changes and being privy to her sometimes rather strange thoughts was quite fascinating.

I read this as part of my RIP and also my Classics list.


21 Responses to “The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson”

  1. Jay

    Hi Lynn,
    I am rapidly becoming a Shirley Jackson fan. I also hope to make this book one of my RIP reads. Your post reminds me a little of the old saying “there are no haunted houses – only haunted people.” Is Eleanor a haunted person or not. Maybe there are both? Yeah, I like that answer. 🙂

    I just read a previously unpublished short story of hers in a recent issue of the New Yorker. My post on that one is at if you’d care to take a look.

    • lynnsbooks

      Hi Jay
      Definitely give this a go. It had me going round in circles which I think is the sign of a good author.
      Lynn 😀

  2. Jaime

    This is one of my favorite gothic novels. I love the ambiguity of whether it’s the house or all in Eleanor’s head as well as the exact nature of the shifting relationships. It also has one of the best final lines I’ve ever read. Great review!

    • lynnsbooks

      I know. I kept thinking that Eleanor was just doing things herself and then talking myself out of the notion. I think by the end of the book I was paranoid myself! By the last line I’m wondering whether you meant the penultimate para or the very last line – actually both of those lines are excellent but the very last line is quite revealing and turns everything on it’s head again!
      Lynn 😀

  3. jessicabookworm

    I definitely agree that Eleanor comes into her own and becomes more confident in Hill House but whether that’s actually the house doing something or her paranoid delusion that it’s the house I’m not sure I know. It’s creepy either way really! As good as this book is I prefer another novel of Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

    • lynnsbooks

      I read We have Always Lived in the Castle for last year’s RIP and thought it was excellent. Another novel with a great build up and a lot of paranoia.
      Lynn 😀

  4. Andi (@estellasrevenge)

    I read this one just recently, and I really enjoyed it. Psychological thrills are much scarier to me than straightforward horror and gore. Such a great book!

    • lynnsbooks

      Exactly! I loved the way the novel twists and turns – literally right up to the last two paragraphs and the last line.
      Lynn 😀

  5. Heather

    This one is on my RIPVIII reading list, too! I’m glad so many people are reading it, I normally don’t have anyone to talk to about what I’m reading. I can’t wait to start now! (Maybe with the lights on, I get freaked easily).

    • lynnsbooks

      I don’t think you’ll need the lights on for this. It’s good, I enjoyed it and it’s definitely got this strange paranoid thing going on which Jackson seems to do very well, but it’s not horror or total hair on the back of your neck standing up type of a read. I suppose, having seen the films maybe this gave me too much of an insight. I think it would be really useful to read a review from somebody who didn’t have that knowledge going into the read.
      I will look forward to your review.

  6. Two Dudes in an Attic

    I wonder how I would react to this now. It was assigned reading in JHS (or thereabouts) and I thought it weak sauce. Of course, adolescent me was looking for fiendishly designed houses and traps, possibly with monsters to vanquish, rather than emo women on their depression cycles. Probably not the fault of the book or author in this case. :p

    • lynnsbooks

      Very funny. Weak sauce, roflmao! Maybe this is a book that you have to reread – I really do think she’s great at paranoia and more to the point illusion, you never truly know what’s going on. However, if I’d read this when I was younger I would have probably agreed with you! Pants! Or watery gravy… so funny.
      Lynn 😀

  7. Joanne

    I’ve never read anything by Shirley Jackson but I hear such a lot of good things about her, especially this time of year! I’ve picked my list for RIP this year – maybe I’ll give her a try next year

    • lynnsbooks

      Yeah, you should give her a go. I’ve read two of her books now and they were both good. I would say We Always Lived in the Castle was probably my favourite but the Haunting of Hill House was very good.
      Lynn 😀

  8. thenovellife1

    this one sounds like the perfect psychological thriller to read on a dark and stormy night!
    and you mention I Am Legend ~ would you believe I have not read that one yet! It’s on my list….just haven’t gotten there yet!

    • lynnsbooks

      Well, I think it’s a case of too many books and not enough time!! You’ll get to them eventually – but there’s always the next ‘shiny’ new book!
      Lynn 😀

  9. Wendleberry

    Yay! You liked it! And reading your review has made me want to re-read it… I loved this book (and the 1963 film). I love/hated Eleanor. The mystery that surrounded her, and her troubled life fascinated me, but the constant give-me-attention/no-i’m-shy aspect of her personality irritated me… but i guess that aspect was also what the story drew on… Oooh, i just love it!

    • lynnsbooks

      The whole thing about Eleanor is totally fascinating. Even now I can’t settle on whether she was manipulative or not. Whether there were ghosts or not! And, she had a habit of thinking really mean things about the other people whilst smiling sweetly at them! So duplicitous. But then, there’s this whole other side where she seems to have lead a very sheltered life at the beck and call of her mother and then her sister. Plus the last two paragraphs – I could really dissect them, not to mention the last line!
      Yes, you should read it and then you could tell me what you think about the last page! I can’t seem to decide.
      Lynn 😀

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