I consider myself something of a horror aficionado. I worship the ground Stephen King treads, believe in the value of both Alfred Hitchcock and Oren Peli (creator of the "Paranormal Activity"series) and am convinced that horror, more than any kind of storytelling, gives readers the best view of the human psyche.
The book is predictable in the way of novels that are over 50 years old: the story is familiar, and this one in particular is the inspiration for countless stories and movies over the last half-century. Still, there's a timelessness to Jackson's ability to work into the narrative the growing madness of her lead character, Eleanor Vance, that allows the book to transcend cliche.
The transformation is both subtle and not-so: from the start, we get a sense of Eleanor's desperation, her desire to get away from her overbearing sister and from her guilt over her mother's death. When she receives an invitation from Dr. John Montague to spend the summer at Hill House as part of a scientific endeavor, Eleanor does everything in her power - including sort of stealing her sister's car - to make it.
The house begins working its malevolence as soon as the characters set foot on its grounds. Eleanor is especially susceptible. Though she tries to befriend the doctor's other guests - the glamorous Theodora, who forgoes a last name and wears trousers (this is 1959, remember); and young Luke Sanderson, the heir to Hill House - she grows deeply resentful of them. Resentment leads to paranoia, which in turn leads to a tragic end.
One crucial scene has Eleanor lying in the dark, fighting her fear of the voices she hears from beyond her bedroom walls. She clutches Theodora's hand painfully for almost a whole chapter. Then the lights come on, and Eleanor realizes she was never on the bed at all - she is lying on a couch across the room from Theodora.
"God!" she cries, "whose hand was I holding?"
As with the best horror fiction, "The Haunting of Hill House" is less about the monster under the bed than it is about how people respond to fear. We never see a single ghost, but we feel - as though we were characters ourselves - the presence of something mad scratching at the edges of our sanity, or banging loudly on our locked bedroom doors. At the end of the book we are left less certain about what we know than we were at the beginning.
The novel has two adaptations, both titled "The Haunting": one made in 1963, starring Julie Harris and Claire Bloom; and one in 1999, starring Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Neither gives justice to Jackson's work, which in less than 250 pages managed to send literal chills down my spine and to make me keep the light on before going to bed, just in case.
If you haven't yet read "The Haunting of Hill House," now's the time.
Most Memorable Quote:
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.”