The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

★★★★☆ (4/5)

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

“The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson is one of the very few horror books I’ve had a chance to read. I would best term it as psychological horror owing to my experience whilst reading the story which on a number of times sent chills running down my spine and thrice made me uncomfortably wary of my unsuspecting surroundings. Although I erred in reading it with breaks, only uninterrupted reading will do justice to the terror evinced from the story. The crisp narrative style lures the reader further into the folds of the story. One seeks a rationale behind the haunting, a logical reason, a physical history, some theory to consolidate facts with experience. But it is the very absence of such reasoning that adds to the unnerving action of the book.

It had an unbelievably faulty design which left it chillingly wrong in all its dimensions, so that the walls seemed always in one direction a fraction longer than the eye could endure, and in another direction a fraction less than the barest possible tolerable length

The bloodcurdling horror of the book is chiefly derived from intangible elements such as the Hill House itself which, though is every bit physical, dispenses off a chilling aura. The house is alive and breathing, much like the four characters who come to reside in it temporarily as part of a study. Through anthropomorphising the house, it gains a character and weight of its own, being aware of its residents and transforming itself to first captivate the dwellers, entrap them and then claim their lives. The house acknowledges the weakest of the lot and plays psychological games with their conscious till they are no longer able to tell reality apart from fantasy.

“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.”

There are no ghosts or phantoms roaming the hallways of Hill House. No poltergeists or spirits haunt its dizzyingly vibrant but cloistered rooms. Despite its shockingly eerie history, the dead lie dormant in their graves, there is no revenge to be sought, nor any spectres awaiting reprieve from this world. Hill House haunts itself, taking good measure of its occupants and enabling them to become overly attached to the house after which they would not desire to leave it. Any attempts at an escape results in death of the escapee on its very grounds. Physical confinements of the house, despite its expansive construction, causes psychological claustrophobia and the author weaves this nicely into her writing.

Around her the trees and wild flowers, with that oddly courteous air of natural things suddenly interrupted in their pressing occupations of growing and dying, turned toward her with attention, as though, dull and imperceptive as she was, it was still necessary for them to be gentle to a creation so unfortunate as not to be rooted in the ground, forced to go from one place to another, heart-breakingly mobile

The plot of the story is somewhat lose in terms of occurrences and situations that happen during the course of the novel. There are no significant or frightful events. Instead, the terror is derived from the psychological past and present of Eleanor Vance. We experience dread through her consciousness before and after Hill House infiltrates her psyche. At a young age, she had experienced a supernatural occurrence at her childhood house and much of her adult life had been dedicated to nursing her ailing mother. In accepting Doctor Montague’s invitation to reside in Hill House as part of his study of the paranormal, Eleanor is in fact desirous of good company. Despite her fantasies of solitude and seclusion, she longs for companionship. Eleanor is the first to seek camaraderie with other inhabitants, Theodora and Luke Sanderson who is the heir to the estate.

Her years with her mother had been built up devotedly around small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness, and unending despair

Theodora is diametrically opposite to Eleanor yet they strike kinship at their first meeting. This bond soon dissolves as Eleanor’s inherent longing for isolation distances her from their blooming friendship. Eleanor also manages to dissociate herself with Luke who is infatuated by her during their brief stay in Hill House. As the house permeates Eleanor’s mind, she begins to break down. Doctor Montague’s character which so far had been nothing more than a cardboard caricature, filling in for a more wholesome character which may or may not make an appearance, suddenly begins to notice the stark changes in Eleanor’s behaviour. The three are alarmed and cautious but only Eleanor is nonplussed at her own transformation.

What a complete and separate thing I am, she thought, going from my red toes to the top of my head, individually an I, possessed of attributes belonging only to me

Another element of the story which intensifies its daunting aura is that of time. Much of the story follows Eleanor and Theodora’s endeavours despite the Doctor being the central figure which binds them all. Whilst the reader concentrates on what Eleanor and Theodora are preoccupied with, we remain wholly unaware of the whereabouts of the Doctor and Luke and the two caretakers of the house Mr. and Mrs. Dudley. The house is able to possess Eleanor in an incredibly short time, that is, within the first few days of their arrival.

Hill House, whatever the cause, has been unfit for human habitation for upwards of twenty years. What it was like before then, whether its personality was molded by the people who lived here, or the things they did, or whether it was evil from its start are all questions I cannot answer

From architectural confinement to being trapped by one’s past, the characters are wedged in Hill House. Luke is essentially stuck with this estate which he will come to own one day. Dr. Montague is stuck in a marriage with a controlling woman, in a career that promises no future prospects of success. Theodora is held fast by her carefree lifestyle. The Dudleys are ensnared by the house to perpetually offer their services to bring order to it. And Eleanor is entrapped by her haunting past, her loneliness in adult life and her fantasies which blur the line between real and unreal.

Nothing is ever really wasted, she believed sensibly, even one’s childhood

All in all, reading “The Haunting of Hill House” was an experience in itself. Frightening and stifling as it was, the evocative imagery of closed spaces further heightens our senses and makes us receptive to the slightest of oddities. Our curiosity runs high and dry. Despite the flatness of a few characters, the story comes full circle. The ending truly does justice to the terror manifested in the book. Highly recommended!

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