The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Shirley Jackson's definitive haunted house novel, The Haunting of Hill House, is the literary equivalent of a James Whale monster movie: though rudimentary by today's standards, there are striking archetypal qualities that solidify the piece's legacy. Of course, I also can't help but recall Mark Twain's famous quote that a "classic" is "something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read." For better or worse, Jackson's novel is a classic in the horror genre - and while I'm glad that I've read Haunting of Hill House, I won't begrudge anyone who wants to skip the book and jump straight into the film adaptation(s) of this story. To be clear, this is not Halloween Horror Nights, with jump scares and visceral thrills; rather, it's a subtle, atmospheric sense of dread, like walking through a graveyard at midnight. Jackson is the queen of the "slow burn" novel, though her literary fires feel more like flickering shadows than flames. Sometimes, though, that "slow burn" is waaaaaayyyy too slow - even for a nerdy librarian/English teacher like yours truly.
In Jackson's original version of the story, a professor with a passion for the supernatural, Dr. John Montague, recruits three layman to spend the summer in the (supposedly) haunted Hill House. Those three recruits - Eleanor Vance, Luke Sanderson, and Theodora (whose last name is never revealed) - encounter phenomenon both strange and mundane, with Eleanor most affected by the house's cruel tricks. Spookiness ensues, with most of the horror embedded in the psyche of Eleanor rather than in the eerie artifice of the building. I won't reveal much more, because many of the novel's key plot points are too spoiler-y for general consumption. Let's just say that houses aren't the only things haunted by ghosts in this novel.
I recently re-watched Mike Flanagan's Netflix Hill House adaptation with my teenage daughter, and I was thrilled by all of the Easter eggs Flanagan worked into each episode. Whether it's the "cup of stars" monologue, Theo's sexual orientation, the marble statues on the ground floor, the "cold spot" that Theo encounters, or the psychiatrist named after Dr. Montague (portrayed by the same actor who played Dr. Jacoby on Twin Peaks, to boot!), the show tips its hat to Jackson's novel in various subtle and not-so-subtle ways. To engage with both the original novel and the Netflix adaptation is an absolute treat: Flanagan rewards readers of the novel with his carefully crafted allusions.
As much as I hold fast to the general rule that "the book was better," there are some circumstances in which the film adaptation surpasses the quality of its source material. In this circumstance, The Haunting of Hill House fits snugly in that category. Mike Flanagan's Netflix adaptation of Jackson's novel is a stone-cold classic, and it is compulsively engaging in a way that the novel is not. That's not to say that the original novel is meritless; it's just aged in a way that diminishes its impact on the horror genre. It's more quaint than horrifying, in that regard.
Still, though, Shirley Jackson's Haunting of Hill House is just that: haunting. It's not scary or exhilarating or or terrifying. It simply haunts its readers after they turn the final page. Even if there isn't a "Bent-Neck Lady" in sight, there are still bristling themes that are more chilling than a shadowy October night. And that might be enough to entice future generations of readers to enter the doors of Hill House for a spell... and maybe stay forever.
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Mild-mannered librarian by day… and a mild-mannered rock & roller by night.