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.
Well if that’s not an opening paragraph that makes you want to read the rest of the novel, I don’t know what is. Published in 1959 by Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House is widely regarded as one of the finest horror novels, and, in my opinion, rightly so.
The basic story is a pretty familiar one: Dr. John Montague, a paranormal investigator, assembles a team of people (all with some apparent connection to the supernatural), to investigate Hill House. The house stands in a remote, unspecified location, and like the best haunted houses, has a twisted and bloody history. There are two reasons this book stands far above other similar works. The first is the main character Eleanor Vance.
Eleanor had spent most of her life looking after her demanding invalid mother, who, at the beginning of the novel, has recently died. Eleanor sees her invitation to Hill House as an opportunity to finally start her life, and though she’s understandably excited, she can’t quite leave the bitterness and despair she’s built up behind. She’s in an understandably precarious mental state, and very quickly seems to be deeply affected by the house. While a hysterical woman running around screaming and cackling could be an exasperating, clichéd character, Eleanor’s erratic behaviour is completely understandable, given what she’s gone through, and that she’s now staying in a haunted house (when you put it like that it really doesn’t seem like a good idea). You really fear for her sanity and safety because she’s a relatable, flawed character, and quite tragic in her attempts to finally come out from her mother’s long shadow.
“Good God—whose hand was I holding?”
The other great thing about the book is its ambiguity about what exactly is happening, and how much of it is real or in Eleanor’s head. For me, I think there’s definitely something inherently wrong with the house, but it’s still hard to tell what’s really supernatural and what’s being imagined by Eleanor. Has Eleanor awakened something in the house, or vice versa? Jackson never gives us an easy answer. And while such ambiguity can sometimes be a result of a writer being embarrassed about featuring truly supernatural elements (I feel this way about the film adaptation of The Shining sometimes), in The Haunting of Hill House, it just adds to the unsettling atmosphere of the novel. By the end, you’ll feel like you’ve been on a journey through a disturbed mind: only is it that of Eleanor, or the house, or both…?
On a sidenote, I also highly recommend the 1963 film adaptation The Haunting (the featured image up top is from the film). It’s very faithful not only in terms of the story, but the atmosphere and tone too. It’s one of my favourite horror films, and is most impressive for being completely terrifying without featuring anything overtly supernatural or typically horrific.
But whatever you do, avoid the godawful 1999 adaptation (more of a remake of the 1963 film). Not only is it honestly one of the worst horror films I’ve ever seen, it actually seems to try to do the opposite of everything the novel and 1963 film do so well (and sadly my copy of the novel has a film tie-in cover: there’s nothing scary about Catherine Zeta-Jones). Where they’re subtle and ambiguous, the 1999 version is blunt and unequivocal. For example, the 1963 film has a neat little habit of having the camera linger for slightly too long on various statues throughout the house, so that you’re tensed, expecting them to move. In the 1999 version, they actually do move, with rubbery 1999 CGI making little statues of Cupid watch our characters as they pass.
Stick with the novel or the first film if you want something that’ll linger long in your mind afterwards.