Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

I already briefly wrote about The Haunting of Hill House in my recent March roundup, here. I decided to revisit it though because its first paragraph is just such a brilliant piece of work.

Here’s that first paragraph:

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. 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 doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

For a piece of gothic fiction I think that’s about as good an opener as one could hope for. Hill House, not insane but instead “not sane”, is of course not a living thing at all and yet immediately we have a sense that in some strange fashion perhaps it is a “live organism”. Alive but undreaming, not sane, patient and implacable.

Much of what’s described here if you give it a moment’s thought is actually pretty prosaic. What do we actually know? Hill House is a detached property set in hills, it’s stood for eighty years and is solidly constructed and well maintained. It is quiet, as you’d hope for an unoccupied rural property.

Put like that it sounds quite a tempting purchase. But then we have that comment that it’s “not sane”, and that wonderful final line: “whatever walked there, walked alone”. For that line alone I’m knocking $50k off my offer price.

Later we have this additional bit of description:

It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed.

How can a house be kind? And yet, I do know what Jackson means. It is an unforgiving place and while exorcism might work with spirits it can’t fix a house built without regard for comfort or humanity. Is then Hill House actually haunted? Or does it just reflect the cold nature of the man who built it?

It’s into that house that Eleanor Vance comes, one of a group gathered together in an attempt to plumb the house’s secrets. Here’s how Eleanor is introduced:

Eleanor Vance was thirty-two years old when she came to Hill House. The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister. She disliked her brother-in-law and her five-year-old niece, and she had no friends.

Does that sound to you like anyone who should be let anywhere near Hill House? The order of the facts in the paragraph is interesting.  We learn first who Eleanor hates, “now that her mother was dead”, which is a distinctly chilling caveat. Then we learn who she dislikes. Then finally that she has no friends.

There’s nothing healthy here. When we actually get to see more of Eleanor she’s quite likable, and yet that opening paragraph is full of hate and dislike. This is not somebody who should be in a place which isn’t fit “for love or for hope”.

Jackson has a tremendous gift for the foreboding. This is a book in which relatively little actually happens. One room has an inexplicable cold spot, but it’s an old house. Doors shut themselves, but it appears they may be balanced to do so besides which the housekeeper seems prone to shutting them even when they’re left blocked open. There are other incidents, noises and writing on walls, but some could be imagination and others plain old human mischief.

What’s truly chilling about Hill House is the atmosphere, and Jackson creates that not through what happens but simply through her choice of language. Jackson says “silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House”, but of course it would. What else would silence do? Still, the effect works.

Too much of this would get silly, and Jackson recognises this too and undercuts herself with humour. In an early exchange the housekeeper Mrs Dudley issues Eleanor with a darkly melodramatic warning:

“I don’t stay after I set out dinner,” Mrs. Dudley went on. “Not after it begins to get dark. I leave before dark comes.”
“I know,” Eleanor said.
“We live over in the town, six miles away.” “Yes,” Eleanor said, remembering Hillsdale.
“So there won’t be anyone around if you need help.”
“I understand.”
“We couldn’t even hear you, in the night.”
“I don’t suppose—”
“No one could. No one lives any nearer than the town. No one else will come any nearer than that.”
“I know,” Eleanor said tiredly.
“In the night,” Mrs. Dudley said, and smiled outright. “In the dark,” she said, and closed the door behind her.

Sinister stuff. However, later Eleanor’s fellow guest Theodora arrives and rather bizarrely Mrs. Dudley repeats the entire speech. Although Eleanor has been fairly thoroughly spooked by this point Mrs. Dudley’s warnings do rather lose something with repetition:


“I leave before dark comes,” Mrs. Dudley went on.
“No one can hear you if you scream in the night,” Eleanor told Theodora. She realized that she was clutching at the doorknob and, under Theodora’s quizzical eye, unclenched her fingers and walked steadily across the room. “We’ll have to find some way of opening these windows,” she said.
“So there won’t be anyone around if you need help,” Mrs. Dudley said. “We couldn’t hear you, even in the night. No one could”
“All right now?” Theodora asked, and Eleanor nodded.
“No one lives any nearer than the town. No one else will come any nearer than that.”
“You’re probably just hungry,” Theodora said. “And I’m starved myself”. She set her suitcase on the bed and slipped off her shoes. “Nothing,” she said, “upsets me more than being hungry, I snarl and snap and burst into tears.” She lifted a pair of softly tailored slacks out of the suitcase.
“In the night,” Mrs. Dudley said. She smiled. “In the dark,” she said, and closed the door behind her.

Jackson takes her stock gothic character, the sinister housekeeper, and uses her effectively in the absolutely traditional fashion as an issuer of dire warnings. Then, audaciously, Jackson has her return but now as comic relief.

What Jackson realises is what many of the best horror movie directors realise – you can’t just indefinitely wind up the tension. It gets too much and the reader/viewer can’t take it. Instead they ratchet up the tension slowly, sometimes releasing it back a bit with a humorous interlude or something mundane, before inexorably tightening the screws once more.

In the final quarter of Haunting Jackson introduces two new characters in the form of a self-professed medium and her doughty companion. They’re absolutely convinced they know what’s going on before investigating anything and manage both to miss the actually odd while constructing their own detailed theories from nothing but their own prejudices and assumptions. It’s a move that didn’t quite work for me – a bit too much humour too late in the book, but in some ways it does make the book all the more disturbing.

Hill House contains madness and tragedy: either lying intent but dormant within it waiting to be discovered by the unwary;  or brought to it by people looking for a stage on which to act out their own dramas. The former possibility is horror in the traditional sense. The latter is actually the more horrifying. What walks in Hill House may just be us. Compared to that ghosts are positively comforting.

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15 Comments

Filed under Horror, Jackson, Shirley

15 responses to “Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.

  1. A great analysis of some of the elements of Jackson’s technique. Funnily enough, I read this fairly recently, possibly prompted by your mention of it in one of your round-ups! Hopefully I’ll get a chance to write about it at some point if other events don’t overtake me.

    The introduction of those two characters towards the end is an interesting move. She uses humour very effectively in ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’, but it comes much earlier in the book, before things really begin to kick off.

  2. Scared the crap out of me when I read it. The hand holding scene reminded me of an incident in my childhood which I mention in my own review. Great write up, as ever.

  3. If it really is scary then it sounds like it’s worth a read. The problem for me with a lot of so-called horror is that it isn’t really that frightening, especially when compared with the movies. It’s not a genre I’m particularly fond of.

  4. What I love about Hill House is, as you say, very little actually happens but the atmosphere is one of creeping dread. Skilfully done. Great review.

  5. I’ve read Shirley Jackson short stories but have yet to try a novel.

  6. I’m still recovering from her short story The Lottery, which is the only thing of hers I’ve ever read and I don’t know if I have the gumption for a whole novel. Still not convinced after this, either…. :s

  7. If you do write about it Jacqui I’d be very interested in your thoughts on those two characters late on. Writing about the book I saw how it did make things more tragic, perhaps because it made them seem more avoidable. Still not sure it quite worked for me though. Even so, overall a very strong book.

    Sarah, yes! That hand holding scene is absolutely chilling.

    Alastair, I’m not sure how much a book really can be actually scary. I mean, I’m not saying it’s not possible but I do think it’s very hard. This is however disquieting, and has a very nice sense of building tension.

    Cathy, exactly yes. Not much happening but we dread it all the same. I find that more credible and therefore more scary. There was a recent movie version in which all kinds of over the top CGI stuff happens. I just can’t suspend my disbelief enough to go with that – we’d know if that sort of thing happened in real life. But a slow sense of dread and hostility? That I can imagine and if Hill House were real I wouldn’t want to live there.

    Guy, this one’s good but Jacqui reviewed We Have Always Lived in the Castle which sounds like it’s possibly more you.

    Kaggsy, I’ve heard that story is good. This is fairly creepy and intense, but it’s also not that long. Perhaps one for a winter evening with a cosy crime to follow in case needed?

  8. Shouldn’t it be called Ill House?

    I don’t think that’s for me but thanks for the excellent piece and analysis of paragraphs of the book.

    Great book cover, it seems to suit the book well.

  9. Sendra

    Very funny review. I’d type LOL but then I’d have to throw up.
    It’s a good point. Can a book be scary? I’d say, occasionally.
    I remember reading Manhunter and there was the odd page that shocked me like a sudden hand on the shoulder. It involved a trick but a nicely executed one. I’m guessing age has something to do with it, too. Being a kid and finding a Hammer Horror chilling rather than comfortable. As an young adolescent I found the cover for James Herbert’s The Fog to be genuinely hard to look at. A decapitated female head with lolling tongue. It set me up for high disquiet. Now, I’m used to decapitated heads. Even the real ones. Any books ever frightened you?

  10. It’s certainly not a healthy place Emma. Agreed on the cover.

    Sendra, interestingly James Herbert is one that I think I’d pick as having his moments. In all honesty I think he’s overdue a reappraisal. Here too there’s the odd page. But consistently scary? I think that’s tricky, perhaps trickier if the reader is a horror fan (which is quite likely of course).

    I’m sure some have frightened me, but I can’t think of any presently so perhaps not.

  11. Sendra

    I did look at a Herbert book recently and I kind of agree with you and also with his critics. His characters aren’t very memorable but their ends are. So his style manages to be stirringly morbid and yet somehow thin. A bit like a plunging but tatty roller coaster.
    I don’t think any horror novel can be consistently scary. It would actually be a rather harrowing experience. You might even chicken out. It’s an interesting idea though. It would take some serious skills.

  12. Sendra

    Forgot to add that Herbert did have original ideas. He gets credit for that.
    As for lasting disquiet, it has to be non-genre that has the advantage.
    Hill House sounds fun but maybe I’ve traveled down that road a bit too often.

  13. A plunging, but tatty roller coaster is a lovely description.

    I can see thin characters for Herbert. Really they were there to service the plot and the horror, not for themselves. He was good though at character sketches. He used to do this thing where a chapter would open from the viewpoint of some new character who would be quickly brought to life before of course being horribly killed.

    One that sticks in the mind was a young woman (I think, it’s been decades) in The Fog who went to a beach to drown herself, contemplates her life, changes her mind at the last moment only to turn round and see a wall of people infected by the fog remorselessly marching down the beach into the sea. She’s swept up by them to her destruction. I found that and many other of his images distinctly creepy. The Dark has a football hooligan who manages to kill an entire stadium’s worth of people. The Rats (I think) a teenager at the cinema who almost escapes by running along the tops of the seats. Amazing I remember these things but a tribute to James.

  14. Sendra

    I think so. For example, I remember the young woman very well, too. A passage that describes her drowning and resultant oblivion sticks out.
    But there’s also comedy too. A good five or so pages of backstory for some poor bloke then the rats come along and do dreadful things.
    Was Herbert in on the joke? That’s the question. Regardless, he was a genuinely interesting if wonderfully lurid genre writer.
    Thank you for the compliment. I write a bit myself. I even had an adventure with Penguin and Harper-Collins when I was a kid. Keep it quiet but there is a slim ghost story novella in a dark corner of my computer. It’s about a building. I can say no more than that. Brr, buildings . . . scary.

  15. Pingback: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson | JacquiWine's Journal

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