About a quarter into reading The Haunting of Hill House – the oft-lauded “classic” by Shirley Jackson, a regular feature on lists of top horror books, and most recently the inspiration for a hit Netflix series – I encountered a name that instantly sounded familiar to me: Hugh Crain. Having never read this book before and only recently having been reminded of its existence due to how hugely popular the series is at the moment, I was surprised as to why this stood out to me.
Rather than go full 21stcentury and Googling it, I decided to read on and see if it would come back to me organically. Soon after, I realised that I actually had been exposed to a version of this story before, at least a decade ago if not more, when the foggy memory of a movie starring Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta Jones started floating around my brain. Naturally a Google was in order then, and sure enough, The Haunting of Hill House was previously (somewhat loosely) adapted in the 1999 release The Haunting (which also starred Owen Wilson and Lily Taylor). Of course, with my memory of this film being so disjointed a re-watch is probably in order to fully judge how I feel about it. But one thing that does seem clear is that although I didn’t remember it very well, I distinctly remember a feeling of it being not very good. Which didn’t fill with me with much hope for the rest of this book.
As somebody who likes their horror the scarier the better, I was left a little disappointed by The Haunting of Hill House. Then again, I’ve always thought that horror plays out on screen (when it’s done right) better than it does on the page. There is something about the genre that makes seeing something generate a far stronger reaction than reading something does, at least for me. And though I say this book was a bit of a let-down, that’s not to say that I think Jackson isn’t a good writer. That would be crazy; she is widely praised for a reason, and some of her other stories – namely We Have Always Lived in The Castle and The Lottery – are firmly on my must-read list. I just feel this fell flat because for a book about a haunting, very little haunting actually goes on.
The plot of The Haunting of Hill House revolves around Dr. John Montague, a paranormal investigator, who invites three strangers who have all supposedly experienced some form of paranormal activity in their past to a remote mansion known as Hill House. The mansion, built by the long deceased, aforementioned Hugh Crain, is to be the summer setting of an experiment to prove the presence of paranormal activity there. These three guests are: Luke, the eventually heir to Hill House, Theodora, a free-spirited young artist and Eleanor, a shy and somewhat reclusive woman, bitter about having spent a large part of her life caring for her demanding, uncaring mother.
The novel takes “slow burn” to a whole new meaning. Given its small length (233 pages) you’d be forgiven for thinking it would be a fast-moving plot. It’s not until around the half way point that we even get a hint of a supernatural presence at Hill House. What precedes this is mainly a lot of chit-chat amongst the four guests of the house about their backgrounds, intermingled with breakfast, lunch and dinner. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing at first – it’s interesting to hear about each character and what led to them coming to Hill House, and the expectation is that this character building is just to ease the reader in before things take a turn into a more horror-like tone as opposed to one of a period drama. There is a married couple, the Dudleys, who act as caretaker and cook for the house, but who ominously refuse to stay there after night falls, refusing to elaborate as to why. So, that does help to give the story some tension and keep you interested.
But that investment is ultimately wasted. All of a sudden, things do take a turn, but the few episodes of “haunting” that follow are poorly described, and to say the characters reactions are muted is an understatement. If the characters don’t appear all that frightened by what’s going on, then why should we be? Even after a night supposedly filled with doors banging of their own accord, the four of them seem more concerned about having lunch and a brandy the next day. It just doesn’t make sense.
Things don’t improve towards the end of the novel, with the introduction of two incredibly severe characters who add next to nothing to the story, and never rise higher than insufferable. Add to this the twist in plot that sees one of the original four inexplicable lose their grip on reality completely due to a perceived connection to the house that is never truly fleshed out or explained to make it plausible. The resulting ending feels rushed and without a sense of closure.
There is perhaps an argument to suggest that The Haunting of Hill House was never supposed to be a ghosts and paranormal activity type horror story, but rather an examination of psychological terror and how different perceptions can affect one’s grip on reality while leaving others unscathed. But the way it’s laid out means it is neither one or the other. There is also the possibility that maybe I just didn’t get it. And like I said, I think I prefer my horror more visual than in print.
Having said that, if you are looking for something similar to THOHH, but better, then I would recommend The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. I actually saw the 2012 film adaptation (starring Daniel Radcliffe) of this before reading it, and it gave me enough shivers down my spine to warrant a read of the book, which turned out to be so well written that it too gave me an equal number of shivers.
Anyway, if you’ve read The Haunting of Hill House, what did you think? I’m always interested to hear different takes on a story. I think I’ll watch the series on Netflix next, and see how it compares. Everything I’ve heard so far appears to suggest it’s worth a watch, so fingers-crossed!
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