The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

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The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Traditional gothic suspense... horror without the gore. The darkest corners are in your own mind.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: October 2009
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics
ISBN: 978-0141191447

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There was a time before Stephen King. There was time before The Shining. There was a time when 'horror' was not rooted in blood, guts and gore. I owe a slight apology to Mr King, because along with the gutsier side of the genre, I will own that he is a master at suspense.

Suspense is the real core of the tale of horror. As Hitchcock once remarked, and the classic original film Alien proved, what the mind imagines is far more horrible than anything that you can show to it. It is a shame that most modern writers have lost sight of this, or lost the talent to exploit it.

On the other hand, it is a terrible delight that earlier proponents of what is now generally collected under the umbrella of 'gothic fiction' are still to be found. Some will never go out of print: Bram Stoker's Dracula is perennial. The Mysteries of Udolpho also appears in numerous versions. So it comes as no surprise that Penguin's Modern Classic series are unearthing other treasures from the vaults. Among these is the less well-known The Haunting of Hill House.

I'm told this was made into a film several years ago, but if you haven't come across that, as I hadn't (still haven't) I urge you to read the book before seeking it out. I'd always urge anyone to read the book first.

Somewhere in the remote American hills there is a house. No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality… Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills holding darkness within…

From the very beginning, the opening sentence, Hill House is presented to us as something alive. This is not mere bricks and mortar, a place upon which humans will wreak their will, this is a live organism.

Directions to the house are clear: route 39 to Ashton, left on Route 5 going west, thirty miles to the small village of Hillsdale (don't ask in the village about the house!), turn left at the corner with the gas station and the Church, and follow the deteriorating road up into the hills until you reach the gates of the house.

These are the directions issued by Dr Montague. Dr M is a psychic researcher. He is a scientist with an interest in the paranormal, but little truck with the field's charlatans, and he has heard that Hill House has a history.

He calls to himself a collection of unknowns, who may have had previous psychic or paranormal experiences, with a view to spending the summer finding out the truth. The collection is self-eroding until upon the appointed day, there gather at the house only Dr Montague himself, Luke Sanderson (a disreputable nephew of the family who own the house), Eleanor Vance, (a non-descript, semi-homeless individual who has spent all her adult life looking after her now-recently-departed mother) and Theodora (a self-obsessed bohemian type, an artist).

Their purpose is to experience whatever happens, and report upon it.

What happens is spooky goings on of the traditional kind. Creaking floors, doors and windows being closed when opened, unexplained noises in the night, rooms of destroyed belongings sprayed with blood(?), unexplained footprints in the grass, mind-games, friends and allies being set against each other, cold spots in the house, retainers who are more than a little suspect and creepy in their behaviour, villagers who may or may not know more than they let on, a history of scandal, and death.

Jackson builds tension, and then allows it to subside.

The builds it again.

She explains nothing.

The reader is left to fathom the possibilities.

First published in 1959, The Haunting of Hill House is pure Victorian Gothic in character. The primary character in the book, overriding all others, is the house itself. Everyone else is true to type and form. Eleanor is struggling with her inner demons, and trying to be something better than she thinks she is, Theodora is at one with a world which must adore her. The appearance of Dr Montague's wife to join the party, undermines his previously determined role of being totally in control and adds to the 'are any of us what we seem' theme of the background plots.

Would it match the modern definitions for 'horror'? Probably not, but for those of us happy to sit in subdued lighting in a cold house on Hallowe'en reading a story about a house that might (or might not) be haunted, it's an old-fashioned delight.

All will be explained in the fullness of time… the storyteller implies…

… but will it? And what will the explanation prove?

Hill House will appeal to anyone who enjoys the gothic and is prepared to allow full rein to their imagination.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals to you then we have a review of We Have Always Lived In The Castle, also by Shirley Jackson.

Booklists.jpg The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is in the Bookbag's Christmas Gift Recommendations 2009.

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