The Haunting of Hill House
by Shirley Jackson
The Viking Press (1959)
Penguin Books edition (1999)
I love a good haunted house tale, as I grew up in a house rumored by some in the community to be haunted. Truth be told, it was just a mildly imposing house sitting atop a hill that looked like the sort that should have a ghost or two wandering about, yet did not--though a few strange and unexplained occurrences did take place in that old house. So, with The Haunting of Hill House I was ready to have my spine tingled.
Eleanor Vance is a woman in need of a place to belong. After years of caring for her ailing mother, the old gal has kicked off and left Eleanor with a modest inheritance and a condescending sister. She's also a bit of a medium too, since she has garnered the attention of one Dr. John Montague who is searching for people with potential clairvoyant, extrasensory, and psychic abilities to aid him in investigating a reputedly haunted house.
Eleanor winds up being only one of two people--a flighty woman named Theodora being the other--to answer Montague's request, coming to Hill House to stay for a week or so in order to witness and record any strange happenings about the property. Joining them are Dr. Montague himself and the disputed heir of the property, Luke Sanderson. As a quartet they stay in the house and seem to spend as much time entertaining one another through droll humor as they do in trying to find any kind of ghostly activity.
In terms of horror, this is a very understated novel. It relies primarily on establishing mood and characters than hammering away at the reader's senses with suspense and jump-scares. Oh, there are a number of scenes that are absolutely drenched in gothic charm and ghostly phenomena, but gruesomeness is not on the menu when it comes to this book.
As far as the characters are concerned, I found each more annoying than the last. The story unfolds through Eleanor's eyes basically, and I wound up seeing her as a cloying, insecure mouse of a woman constantly at odds with herself and those around her. Theodora, Luke, and even Dr. Montague create an insufferably flippant and otiose gang of supporting characters. Not to mention the even more unsavory characters that make appearances later in the book. Sympathy lies solely with Eleanor, and even then it was an effort for me to give it to her as they explored the house and experienced its unsettling apparitions.
I will not spoil how the story plays out despite the book being over a half-century old. It's worth reading just to say you've read it. Personally, I thought it was good overall, but Jackson's insistence on presenting the characters through dialogue heavily peppered with forced humor tried my patience more than once. Intentional though it may have been in establishing the characters, it didn't jibe with me. Aside from that quibble, I am inclined to agree that this is a classic worth checking out. But Richard Matheson's Hell House remains the standard bearer, in my opinion, when it comes to haunted house stories.