The Haunting of Hill House

Shirley Jackson
The Haunting of Hill House Cover

The Haunting of Mildly-Spooky House


This is considered to be a classic of the horror genre, and it's easy to see why: the characters are psychologically complex, the plot is unique but still interesting, Jackson's prose is a joy to read, and the story is genuinely frightening at times. All that makes it hard to admit that I really didn't like this novel by the time I finished it. I think there are a few reasons for this. (I won't bother with a plot description, as one is already available on the novel page.)

1) Unenjoyable characters. While the supporting cast—the doctor, his assistants, the cook, the caretaker, the doctor's wife, and her gun-toting friend—are fascinating and even wildly entertaining, the main character of Eleanor is simply pitiable. I groaned audibly when I realized that she was going to be the focus of the story. It isn't that she is a horrible person, but she is an emotional wreck of desperation, and whenever someone like that walks into a horror story you have to assume that her psychological torment is only going to increase. I didn't enjoy reading of her disintegration any more than I would enjoy watching a three-legged dog being kicked.

2) Too much narrative confusion. The first half of the novel or so is fairly straightforward, even though it's told from the perspective of our mentally distressed protagonist. Then things start happening that may or may not be inside Eleanor's head; not wild supernatural occurrences, mind you, but just conversations between characters. People randomly talk out of character, either because the house is influencing them or because Eleanor is imagining things. I wouldn't have minded this had what actually happened become clear in the end.

3) What does the house want? Am I asking too much to know what goal Hill House has for its victims? Does it simply want to terrorize everybody? Does it want to drive people away? Does it want to pull them closer... and forever? I don't mind that the narrator never tells us explicitly, but the reader should be able to build a theory from the house's actions. After thinking over this group's story and the historical overview of what the house did to its past occupants, it really seemed to possess a wishy-washy kind of malevolence.

4) Buildup without payoff. The first couple days and nights in Hill House are increasingly harrowing for everyone involved. Then things die down for a while, and it seems as though the characters are being lulled into a false sense of security. One expects the horror to come back with a vengeance, but when it returns, it is even less frightening than before. The culminating action doesn't even happen during the climax, but almost as an afterthought in the denouement.

A note about the supernatural in this novel: There's little doubt that the seemingly supernatural occurrences are in fact what they seem. One would have to jump through mental hoops to explain them away as simply psychosomatic or imagined, though I gather there's a school of criticism on this novel that claims exactly that. Either they're nuts, or I'm a sloppy reader.

I truly do wish I could recommend this novel. Jackson's a good writer, but a spotty storyteller. Narrative confusion isn't scary to me, just confusing.