“Horror,” Laura Miller says in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Haunting of Hill House, “turns on the dissolution of boundaries […] between the outside of the body and everything that ought to stay inside.” Maybe the way horror lurks in liminal spaces, only rarely coming right out in the open, has something to do with how much I enjoy the genre. And The Haunting of Hill House serves masterfully as our guide to those cracked and uncertain places.
I’m not usually one for literary horror, though; I don’t visualize things very well and I never have, so I tend to be less (not un-) moved by descriptions on the page (although ask me some time about the warm beer story). So with Hill House, I actually did things the reverse of what I usually do and I watched the movies (and the Netflix series) before I read the novel.
The brief summary (very different from Netflix; less dissimilar to the 1963 or 1999 films): Hill House lurks, unchanged after 80 years and likely to remain unchanged forever more. Into its space (“…vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.”) comes a professor interested in scientifically studying haunted houses (he is only seldom called anything other than “the doctor” though we are told his name), two test subjects (Eleanor and Theodora, one with nowhere to go after the death of her mother and the other after a fight with her “friend”), and the young man who will one day probably inherit the house (Luke, a feckless youth; a liar, the story tells us, and a thief). The four of them spend a week inside Hill House, exploring it and trying to make sense of the happenings there, until Mrs. doctor and her male friend appear, and Eleanor appears to have a psychotic break and is sent home, away from the house.
Only the reader isn’t to know if she even has a home any more, other than Hill House.
This might be a ghost story. Hill House might be haunted. Or it might be something else, entirely.
“Hill House has a reputation for insistent hospitality; it seemingly dislikes letting its guests get away,” the doctor tells them their first night, before they wake up bright-eyed and bushy tailed and, to Eleanor’s surprise, happy. But the darkness lurks, as it always does, beneath the happiness and between the words and behind the doors that refuse to stay open and the windows that cannot let light into the heart of the house.
Jackson builds such a subtle sense of dread throughout using delicate details that don’t necessarily rely on the visual. The terror isn’t about jump scares: it’s Eleanor’s rage, buried deep at being thirty two years old and never being allowed any life other than her fantasies. It’s the slightly akimbo nature of the house. It’s Theo’s ever-changing nature, quixotic — or is it? The narrative is never entirely clear on exactly who is telling the story, nor how much they are to be trusted. Is Eleanor speaking to us?
Perhaps she was to be allowed to speak occasionally for all of them so that, quieting her, they quieted themselves and could leave the subject behind them; perhaps, vehicle for every kind of fear, she contained enough for all.
Is Hill House, itself or through Eleanor, speaking to us?
Somewhere upstairs a door swung quietly shut; a bird touched the tower briefly and flew off. In the kitchen the stove was settling and cooling, with little soft creakings.
Or is perhaps no one speaking at all and what we’re reading are only “the small irritating noises of [little animals] settling down to be quiet.”
The structure of the book is no less convoluted than the story; chapters are numbered haphazardly, weaving in and out of order as if the chapter heads, too, wish to disquiet the reader. (There is a part of me that kind of wants to go back and read all the pieces marked “1” in order, then “2”, etc., and see what changes about the experience but there’s a part of me that wants to leave it a mystery.) And yet, nearly everything loops back toward the beginning from the end; characters one would never expect to end up in parallel, and in the end Hill House squats in all it’s glorious, creepy, diseased, wonderment, squats where it was built,
…its 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.