I'll readily admit that it was the thorough enjoyment that I took in Netflix's 2018 series The Haunting of Hill House which led me to seek out the novel which inspired it. What I discovered was a book that is very rightfully considered a masterpiece within the horror genre, and an author whose books and stories will certainly provide fodder to haunt my dreams for years to come. Shirley Jackson's writing, whatever else I may say about it, most certainly left an impression upon me.
The basic plot of The Haunting of Hill House arises from the premise that an investigator of ghostly phenomena (Dr. John Montague) has invited several individuals "who had, in one way or another, at one time or another, no matter how briefly or dubiously, been involved in abnormal events" to live with him in Hill House in order to study its reputed haunting. This premise has very clearly proven incredibly influential in ghost stories of all kinds in the decades since Hill House was first published back in 1959. I grew up reading books and watching films that were very much based around the idea of the paranormal investigators inviting a group of psychics and experts together to live in a haunted house in order to study it. I have to say that, while it's been done well in the time since, no one has improved upon Jackson's take on it.
Of the numerous individuals invited by Dr. Montague, only four replied. Of those four, only two actually came. The events that follow, while very much captivating, struck me as being less important than the tone in which Jackson conveys them, and the perspectives from which they are explored. The primary protagonist of the book is arguably one of Dr. Montague's two guests, one Eleanor Vance. Eleanor is a fascinating character who is at times completely relatable and at other times utterly incomprehensible. The transformation of Eleanor's character over the course of the story was, for me, the most beautiful--and horrible--aspect of this novel. I would go into more depth, but I would hate to spoil the experience for any uninitiated reader who might want to delve into this book after reading this review. Suffice it to say that even if you have seen the film adaptations of this work, it most certainly still contains surprises for you.
The tone Jackson employs in this novel reminded me of Henry James' novella The Turn of the Screw (first published in 1898). This is true both in that Hill House very much reads as a Gothic horror story, and also in that it left me with the same sense of unease and vague dissatisfaction in the end that I remember having as a child upon first reading The Turn of the Screw. There are no definitive answers given, and this is compounded by the fact that there is certainly reason to doubt the reliability of the narrator. If you have read and enjoyed Henry James, then you will almost certainly likewise enjoy Shirley Jackson; both wrote the sort of horror that leaves a reader feeling unsettled and confused rather than truly horrified.
In summary, it is for very good reason that The Haunting of Hill House is considered one of the best ghost stories ever written. If you enjoy ghost stories, Gothic fiction, or psychological horror, then you should absolutely give this--and Shirley Jackson's other written works--a read. If you do not appreciate ambiguity, or are simply not in the mood for reading something which will haunt you with its imagery and with lingering questions, then this is likely not the book for you. However, I do highly recommend it; let's all be delightfully unsettled together.
Elizabeth Wilcox. Writer, Avid Role-Player, Amateur Mixologist. Survivor.