“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.”
This is our introduction to Hill House, the main character in Shirley Jackson’s classic ghost story, set in the US in the 1950s.
Dr. John Montague, an anthropologist who is interested in the supernatural, rents Hill House for an experiment. The house has lain empty for many years and is reputed to be haunted. For his experiment, Dr. Montague invites a small group of people selected for their connections to the paranormal to spend some time in the house. In the end, only two women accept his invitation: Eleanor Vance and Theodora, an artist. The heir to the house, Luke Sanderson, joins the group.
The story focuses on Eleanor, who was chosen because of an incident when she was a child. There was a bizarre rain of stones on her mother’s house, which might have been produced by Eleanor’s telekinetic abilities. Eleanor had spent most of her life looking after her ill mother, and moved in with her sister when her mother died. “The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister.” So she is delighted when she gets the invitation.
Eleanor drives off into the country, enjoying the sense of freedom, daydreaming about the houses she could have lived in, the life that could have been hers. And then she arrives at Hill House. The gatekeeper is surly and almost doesn’t let her in, muttering about not hanging around after dark. She goes up the long driveway and finally comes face to face with the house. “The house was vile. She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from it at once.”
Of course she doesn’t (or we wouldn’t have a book). She is met by Mrs. Dudley, the gatekeeper’s wife, who is equally surly. Inside, the house is dark and its angles do not seem to be entirely straight, leaving Eleanor feeling a bit off balance. Theodora’s arrival brings a sense of relief, the relief of having someone normal around. The women hit it off immediately, and are eventually joined by the men.
Dr. Montague’s experiment involves recording any supernatural phenomena. Although the first night is fairly quiet, Eleanor can’t shake off a feeling that the house has been lying in wait for her. There is something running along the corridors at night, banging on the doors until it gets to the room where Eleanor is in. And tries to get in. Strange messages are scrawled on to the walls, asking to help Eleanor to come home. Although some of the strange phenomena are witnessed by others, some of them are felt or seen only by Eleanor. It feels almost as if she belongs to the house, and the house is claiming her. Bit by bit, Eleanor starts to unravel.
Shirley Jackson ramps up the tension, and this slim novel packs quite a punch. There is a sense of unease and dread throughout. The line between reality and the paranormal is blurred. It’s never clear how much is actually paranormal activity and how much is Eleanor’s imagination or her battle with her own demons. Then there is Hill House itself, situated in the shadows, with its strange layout and rooms that are off kilter.
In the end, you’re left with the brooding, dark presence of the house, keeping all its secrets—a much older force than the petty humans who try to understand it.