The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)

The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is a 1959 novel in the gothic horror genre, though it might be more accurately described as a literary ghost story. A finalist for the National Book Award, it’s a masterful story of psychological terror.

Hill House is a mansion built by Hugh Crain, long passed away. Dr. John Montague, an investigator of the supernatural, wishes to conduct a study there to find existence of spirits.

With him are three young companions including Luke, the young heir to the mysterious house, and two young women, Eleanor and Theordora. Eleanor is unquestionably the central character, and a close reading of the novel is an exploration of her essential loneliness and psychological breakdown.


The psychological ghost story: setting the stage

In the 2006 Penguin re-issue edition of The Haunting of Hill House, Laura Miller provides detailed insight on the novel and its complicated, often troubled author. I highly recommend linking through to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House: An Introduction for fascinating insights, not only on this particular work, but the genre. Here’s an excerpt:

The true antecedents of The Haunting of Hill House are not the traditional English ghost stories of M.R. James or Sheridan LeFanu, or even the gothic fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, but the ghostly tales of Henry James.

The Turn of the Screw, another short novel about a lonely, imaginative young woman in a big isolated house, is a probable influence, and so, perhaps, is “The Jolly Corner,” the story of a middle-aged aesthete who roams the empty rooms of his childhood home, haunted by the specter of the man he would have been if he had lived his life differently.

The ghost story is a small genre to begin with, but its sub-genre, the psychological ghost story, the category to which The Haunting of Hill House and Henry James’ tales belong, is tinier still.

The literary effect we call horror turns on the dissolution of boundaries, between the living and the dead, of course, but also, at the crudest level, between the outside of the body and everything that ought to stay inside. In the psychological ghost story, the dissolving boundary is the one between the mind and the exterior world.

During the third major manifestation at Hill House, as Eleanor’s resistance begins to buckle, she thinks, “how can these others hear the noise when it is coming from inside my head?”

The psychological ghost story is as much about the puzzle of identity as it is about madness. The governess in The Turn of the Screw yearns to be a heroine, to do something brave and noble, and to attract the attention of the dashing employer whose sole directive is that she never, ever bother him. She wants to be someone else.

Without the mission of protecting her two young charges from mortal danger, she’s merely a woman squandering her youth in the middle of nowhere, taking care of children who will only grow up to leave her behind.

Is the house she presides over haunted by the ghost of brutish Peter Quint and his lover, her predecessor, the sexually degraded Miss Jessel? Or is it haunted by some half-formed, half-desired alternate version of the nameless governess herself?

Eleanor may be the target of The Haunting of Hill House, or she may be the one doing the haunting. After all, Dr. Montague invited her to participate in the project because of a poltergeist incident during her childhood.

(Excerpted from “Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House: An Introduction” by Laura Miller ©2006, reprinted by permission)

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Haunting of hill house by Shirley Jackson

Six Novels by Shirley Jackson: Psychological Thrillers by a Master
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A 1959 review of The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House was well received upon its publication in 1959. Here’s a typical review, giving a glimpse into the plot and characters of this classic work of psychological terror that bears Shirley Jackson’s the unique stamp.

From the original 1959 review by H.G. Rogers from The Literary Guideposts syndicated column, November, 1959: Way off in the hills at the end of a lonely road behind a locked gate stands Hill House.

Eighty years old, the sprawling place with a tower, countless rooms, and doors upon doors upon doors, has been the scene of several deaths. The scared people in the nearby village avoid it like a nighttime graveyard.

Dr. Montague, student of ghosts and their goings-on, rents the building, invites a young man and two girls to stay with him and try to catch a spook. They are Luke, heir to the property, and Theodora and Eleanor, both with some psychic experiences. They will be joined by Mrs. Montague and a friend who works a planchette in anticipation of messages from the spirit world.

A surly pair of caretakers gets this odd house party off to a creepy start, and then in the quiet of the night the gremlins come banging down, thumping deafeningly on the walls and then softly, murderously feeling along with them with their fingertips. Doors close with no one to close them, deadly cold drafts blow from mysterious presences fluttering by unseen.

Miss Jackson isn’t saying right out that she believes in ghosts, but she does say: People who are bound to see ghosts see them, and what they think they see can hurt them.

As between her children, about whom she has written, and her ghosts, I prefer, literally, the ghosts, and the loudest and most terrifying “boo” utter in contemporary fiction was sounded in her short story, “The Lottery.” This novel gives you some queasy moments, but the climax is not one of them.

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We have alwasys lived in the castle by Shirley Jackson

You might also like: We Have Always Lived in the Castle
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Circling back to the present

The Haunting of Hill House  has lingered in the imagination through film and theater, having been adapted into two feature films and a stage play. It was first adapted into a well-regarded film titled The Haunting (1963), starring Julie Harris as Eleanor and Claire Bloom as Theodora. Jackson received a tidy sum of money for the film rights. 

Most recently, it was much expanded into a multipart 2018 Netflix series. Critical reaction has been mixed, as in this review in The Atlantic. It’s probably safe to describe it as inspired by Shirley Jackson’s novel rather than adapted from it, as it departs markedly from the original.

Circling back to Laura Miller’s insights:

Jackson’s ghost story, published in 1959 was a hit; it became a bestseller, the critics praised it, and the movie rights sold for a goodly sum. The incipient madness of Eleanor Vance seemed to affect her creator, though — or perhaps it was the other way around.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is narrated by girl who is even more disturbed; at one point, she sets the house on fire to scare off her sister’s suitor. Jackson, a mercurial personality at best and aggravated by the prescription amphetamines she took like aspirin, experienced her own psychic disintegration not long after finishing “Castle,” a breakdown triggered when one in her husband’s many affairs with Bennington students took an uncharacteristically serious turn.

Eventually, Jackson pulled herself together with the help of a psychiatrist, but the burden of so many years worth of bad habits proved to be harder to conquer. She died in her sleep, of cardiac arrest, at age 48.

The Haunting of Hill House, after “The Lottery,” is the work most often associated with Jackson, but she is no longer widely read. This isn’t necessarily surprising; the successful novelists of one generation often evaporate from the awareness of the next, and it probably didn’t help her reputation in literary circles that she sometimes wrote as a kind of thinking-woman’s Erma Bombeck. (Then even more than now, the domestic realm was viewed as insufficiently serious.)

Still, Jackson’s clean, terse style and her tough-mindedness ought to appeal to the kind of readers who keep Patricia Highsmith and James M. Cain in print today. In a way, Jackson was a kindred spirit to the hard-boiled genre novelists of her time.

She also depicted the cruel jokes of fate and chance unfolding in an amoral universe. It’s just that instead of doing it with men and guns, she chose to write about mad, lonely girls and big, sinister houses.

(Excerpted from “Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House: An Introduction” by Laura Miller ©2006, reprinted by permission. Special thanks to Laura Miller for her insights. Laura is currently books and culture columnist at Slate. In 1995, she co-founded and worked there as an editor and staff writer for 20 years. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and many other publications, including the New York Times Book Review, where she wrote the Last Word column for two years. She is the editor of the Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors (Penguin, 2000).

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The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix

The series adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House 
was somewhat altered, and scarier!
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Numerous contemporary writers have sung the praises of The Haunting of Hill House and/or cited it as an influence on their own work. Here are just two:

“The books that have profoundly scared me when I read them—made me want to sleep with the light on, made the neck hairs prickle and the goose bumps march, are few: Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, Stephen King’s It and Salem’s Lot and The Shining all scared me silly, and transformed the night into a most dangerous place.

But Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House beats them all: a maleficent house, real human protagonists, everything half-seen or happening in the dark. It scared me as a teenager and it haunts me still, as does Eleanor, the girl who comes to stay.” (Neil Gaiman, in a New York Times interview, 2018)

“It is Eleanor, on whose house stones fell when she was a little girl, that [The Haunting of Hill House] is vitally concerned with, and it is the character of Eleanor and Shirley Jackson’s depiction of it that elevates The Haunting of Hill House into the ranks of the great supernatural novels—indeed, it seems to me that it and James’s The Turn of the Screw are the only two great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years.” (Stephen King, in an introduction to Jackson’s work in Danse Macabre, 1981)

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The Sundial by Shirley Jackson

You may also enjoy: The Sundial by Shirley Jackson (1958)
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Quotes from The Haunting of Hill House

“To learn what we fear is to learn who we are. Horror defies our boundaries and illuminates our souls.”

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“Fear and guilt are sisters.”

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“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.”

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“Fear,” the doctor said, “is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns. We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway.”

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“She had taken to wondering lately, during these swift-counted years, what had been done with all those wasted summer days; how could she have spent them so wantonly?”

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“I have spent an all but sleepless night, I have told lies and made a fool of myself, and the very air tastes like wine. I have been frightened half out of my foolish wits, but I have somehow earned this joy; I have been waiting for it for so long.”

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“Am I walking toward something I should be running away from?”

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“Eleanor looked up, surprised; the little girl was sliding back in her chair, sullenly refusing her milk, while her father frowned and her brother giggled and her mother said calmly, ‘She wants her cup of stars.’
      Indeed yes, Eleanor thought; indeed, so do I; a cup of stars, of course.

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“It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed.”

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More about The Haunting of Hill House 

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