This book suffers from the fate that befalls a lot of groundbreaking work in that it’s been copied and emulated so much that a modern reader such as myself reading it for the first time finds it dull and almost derivative. It’s not fair to Jackson, of course, because all of the haunted-house cliches are cliches because she did them so well. Or maybe, more to the point, she did them with such obvious flaws that a lot of other authors could see the ways in which her recipe, if tweaked, could make a much better creation.
The story has four strangers as guests in a huge, rambling house nestled in some hills a few miles from a small backwoods village. They are: Eleanor, a timid and broken woman; Theodora, footloose and feminine; Dr. Montague, very much the patronising academi; and Luke, the rake who is also Hill House’s heir. Hill House is isolated both geographically and culturally. The house is strange, creepy, in its misaligned walls and doors that refuse to stay open and furnishings that ought to be luxuriously comfortable but aren’t. As you’d expect, there are mysterious animals that run just out of sight, unexplained noises and pounding on the doors in the night, writing on the wall,and voices that have the house’s inhabitants huddling in their rooms, terrified with fear. I did find these happenings creepy. In fact, while I was listening to the audiobook, I kept being startled. It reminded me of that great boardgame “Betrayal at House on the Hill” which was no doubt inspired by this book to some degree.
I also enjoyed (as usual) the anachronisms. Eleanor shares a car with her sister and her sister’s husband (how strange! one car for three people? What is this, Europe?) Theodora tells Eleanor (who had yet to finish her morning ablutions) that she has left “a full bath, in case you want to wash.” That was so bizarre to me, that one woman would think that another woman might want to take a bath in the morning, using someone else’s bathwater. They also have a 20th century casualness about servants, (when they find out Mr. and Mrs. Dudley are caretakers/housekeepers, none of the characters hesitates to order them about and treat them as inferior), even though they are all middle class.
I liked Mrs. Montague, both as a writer (learning how a dreadfully unlikeable person can change the dynamic of an otherwise too-stable group of people), and as a reader (because she was dreadfully unlikeable). I liked how she was at once the self-proclaimed expert denying and decrying the interference of skeptics (she keeps talking about her planchette as though it were some pure-bred and sensitive dog that would only perform tricks if it were properly spoiled). I found Theodora and Eleanor to be strange. Theodora has an easy familiarity, where she uses nicknames and physical contact with a stranger in a way that felt odd when I pictured it. If I had just met a woman and she started calling me nicknames and making up stories about me and touching me on the cheek, I’d wonder if she was from another country or was maybe non-neurotypical or had been homeschooled on a commune or something. Eleanor and Theodora had several conversations which felt just askew to me, as if they were badly translated by someone who didn’t study their grammar and vocab. At one point they start talking about Luke as if both of them were competing for his affections, but I hadn’t read that dynamic in any of them and for a moment it felt like Jackson were one of those male writers who really, really don’t understand women and they try to shoehorn a romance in there and it’s just awkward. I’ll chalk that up to the women of 60 years ago being different from us.
Eleanor started out being interesting. I liked how she kept thinking of her journey as an escape, kept hearkening about how they would never find her. I thought that would be brought back round like “later she’ll be hoping someone can find her and the reader will reflect on her words,” but Dr. Montague finds and contacts her sister very easily, so it wasn’t like a foreshadowing but more like a lie. I liked her unreliable narration and brittle psyche, but felt it didn’t quite develop the way it could have. I may have been spoiled by having seen too many haunted house stories. The familiar narrative goes that the hauntings crescendo until everyone is driven out or killed or some other unspeakable tragedy happens. I missed the crescendo.
I felt like the horror and terror of this book peaked in the middle, and what came after it felt like a completely different direction. Some of Eleanor’s attitudes didn’t really make sense. I understand Eleanor’s quest for a home, but it didn’t feel compelling, even at the end. She wasn’t quite insane enough to be frightening, and not quite sane enough to grow from the experience. I guess I wanted her to either say “screw this” and move to the city and get her own apartment with a white cat and two stone lions and a cup of stars, or I wanted her to flip out and start stabbing people. She kind of went in a middling route. Her actions seemed scripted, but not compelled. She climbed the tower with the compulsion to escape, but she drove the car off the road with the compulsion to stay? I like the “person slowly goes nuts” narrative, but I felt like this was “wishy-washy person gets wishy-washied to death” which doesn’t satisfy me.
I also really wanted to know what was going on with the house. I think this is why so many writers turn to the “Indian burial ground” or “demonic possession” trope. It gives a why to an otherwise unexplained mystery. We never find out the why, and too many things are set up and then not used. Jackson sets up in the beginning of the book that if you scream in the night, no one can hear you, and you mustn’t ever leave by dark or terrible things will happen, but when they do leave by dark, they are horrified by the apparition of…a sunny picnic. Watermelon! Lemonade! Boys chasing puppies! That’s hardly terrifying, even if it is unnatural. And of course, they do scream in the night, and everyone comes running. Even Arthur with his loaded gun was a tension un-exploited. He never even pointed the thing.
This book had a great premise, and a great set-up, but I didn’t feel that Jackson adequately brought it home. The ending felt tacked-on and implausible, a shave-and-a-haircut with the preceeding 32 bars of music missing. She had a great unreliable, mentally instable character who could have taken us for a creepy joyride through the depths of her twisted, haunted, downwardly spiralling madness. Instead, we had an unreliable narrator who kept changing her mind and made a couple of bad choices.
I recommend this for fans of Shirley Jackson (I’d read it before “We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which is in my opinion better.) and for fans of haunted house stories who want to read a classic. I think straight-up fans of horror, however, will be disappointed by an ending which delivers far less than the setup promised.