Dr. Montague rents out the purportedly haunted Hill House, in hopes of finding concrete evidence of a haunting. He is joined at Hill House by three others– Eleanor, a woman with no place in the world, Theodora, a funny yet spiteful psychic, and Luke, the future heir to the house. From the beginning, something is off with the house. It is ugly and disturbing. None of the doors will remain open on their own. The house is a maze with rooms connected to other rooms without the benefit of hallways. The original owner of the house had it built with all the corners just slightly more or less than 90 degrees, so it is also disorienting to navigate the house.
Strange, unexplained things begin to happen. There is a cold spot when you enter the nursery. Writing appears on the wall, first in chalk and later in blood. Mysterious knocking happens at night. Eleanor, in particular, is singled out by the house which calls for her to come home. Slowly, Eleanor falls under the house’s spell, driving her insane.
It has been at least ten years since I last read this book and I am not sure I like it quite as much as I like We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but Shirley Jackson is still a master at making the ordinary terrifying and at creating characters who appear ordinary, but who are quite off-kilter. I think what makes it worse, is that the book is particularly disorienting (just like the house!) and you never quite know what is real, what is Eleanor’s imagination, or what is really happening. And Jackson makes it clear that explaining the haunting isn’t going to happen when she introduces Mrs. Montague and her driver, Arthur. The two try to explain the haunting by using a device similar to a Ouija board and by offering love to the spirits haunting the house. In turn, they never experience any of the strange phenomena of the house because they are clearly hacks.
I will always recommend Shirley Jackson because I enjoy her writing and I admire her ability to create characters who look normal until you shine a bright light on them. I also recommend this as a Halloween read to those looking for something a little spooky, especially those who aren’t into the super-scary. It’s pretty tame in comparison to a lot of thrillers/horror stories, but if you are anything like me, it will still creep you out. Finally, this makes for a pretty good readathon book, as it is fairly short, spooky, and weird.