This book by Shirley Jackson might have had more of an impact on me if I weren’t already a fan of the 1963 film (soooo creepy!), but it’s still a good book, even if you know what chills are coming and are thus less easily shocked by them.
Hill House is not a good house. Right in the first page, we are told this:
Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and door were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
Right from the start, Hill House was built wrong. The angles aren’t quite right, and doors aren’t exactly where they’re supposed to be. And the house has a dark history. A dispute between heirs led to suicide. And now, it’s empty, visited by caretakers who refuse to stay the night.
An academic interested in the supernatural, Dr. John Montague wants to understand Hill House, so he gathers a group of two women who’ve shown some psychic ability and a heir to the current owner to come stay at Hill House and see what happens. The book focuses on one of the women, Eleanor, a spinster who spent the last several years caring for her mother. Hill House looks like the opportunity for liberty she’s been longing for, a chance to remake herself away from the family members she loathes.
It takes a while for it to become clear that the house is working on Eleanor in a way that is different from the others. But eventually, Eleanor becomes bound up in the house in a way that frightens the others.
So what is it about Eleanor that makes her a target? She’s alone and detached even from those close to her, and she’s prone to fantasy, as is evident from her musings on the drive to Hill House and her quick attachment to Theo, the other woman in the group. It’s unclear, though, how much of Eleanor’s thinking, especially late in the book, comes from her or from the house.
The house itself is surely an object of terror, but early on, it’s usual haunted house stuff—cold spots, rattling doors, writing on walls. Creepy, yes, but it’s easy to shake off (or at least it is if you’re reading at home and not at Hill House). The real fright comes from the way the house becomes beguiling. It woos Eleanor, even as it plays its tricks. And Eleanor was ripe for wooing.
There’s something inside Eleanor that makes it possible for Hill House to reach her. There’s the part that wants to be remade, to live a new life, to slough off old commitments. And a lot of people feel that way at times. The desire to slip out of our old life and into something new, away from the current irritations, can make even the worst situations look appealing. And once that wooing voice gets in our heads, what might we do to accept the offer?