Subtlety isn’t really what I’m looking for when it comes to books about possessed buildings trying to drive their occupants crazy. But that’s exactly what Shirley Jackson offers in the psychological horror classic The Haunting of Hill House. The book, which is the basis of a recent Netflix series, follows four strangers brought together by a strange, old mansion. Dr. John Montague has been looking for an opportunity to conduct serious research into unexplained phenomena for a long time. He hires young bohemian Theodora and shy recluse Eleanor to help him with his research, while the heir to Hill House, Luke Sanderson, joins the group to protect his inheritance.
The house itself is off-putting and creepy in a number of ways. Located well off the beaten path in a rundown town, the building itself exudes malevolence. The doors refuse to stay open, slamming shut insistently. The furniture is all too uncomfortable to use for long, and the layout of the house is impossible to remember. The walls are built at odd angles, leading to the rooms looking just slightly off to the naked eye.
The history of the house is not any nicer. Built by a fervently religious patriarch, the house has been witness to strange and untimely deaths and been the cause of family resentments and dissolution. It’s been unoccupied for years and no one who tries to stay there lasts very long.
Jackson’s prose matches the subject matter. There’s something just a little bit off about the way she writes, and as I read I could never quite settle into a groove. Most of the events that occur after Dr. Montague and his cohorts move into Hill House are hard to decipher. Eleanor is the member of the household we spend the most time with, and it’s impossible to tell whether she is relaying he experiences accurately. Is the house possessed, or is Eleanor just disturbed? That’s the central tension of the book and Jackson is in no hurry to make things clear for her readers.