"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." - Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
If you - like me, like Jackson, like many others - have become aware of life's padding - those cushions of little fantasies we place around our minds to make existence bearable -, if you have sensed the presence of a looming irrationality and feared the insanity within yourself, then The Haunting of Hill House will speak to you in a voice frightening and profoundly disturbing.
The novel follows the classic haunted house narrative pattern. A handful of disparate characters - including heir to the house Luke Sanderson, artist and possible lesbian Theo, lonely and fanciful Eleanor Vance, and supernatural investigator Dr. John Montague - find themselves holed up together in a secluded, Victorian gothic house with a sinister history; inexplicable supernatural occurrences ensue. There are other characters as well, some rather comical. And then there is the house itself, a "vile...diseased" edifice, situated alone away up in the hills, with doors and windows that refuse to remain open, rooms within rooms that one gets lost in: an overbearing, maternal presence - both stifling and comforting - that engulfs its inhabitants.
The story comes to us through the character of Eleanor, who has spent most of her life in the oppressive role of the dutiful daughter, caring for her invalid mother and dreaming of the day when "something would happen." Early in the novel, in one of the most wonderful passages I have ever read, we follow Eleanor as she escapes into a world of freedom, fancy, and adventure, driving on the open road towards Hill House and admiring, along the way, various sights that she draws into her fairy-tale fantasies. We are drawn in as well, into her visions, her point of view, into her mind, and it is a fine place to be - until we gradually become aware of its underlying guilt, grief, instability, madness - a madness which seems to impose upon its surroundings. Or do its surroundings impose upon it?
The title - "The Haunting of Hill House" - is telling in its ambiguity. Is the house doing the haunting? Or is something haunting the house? In a brisk and sparse style, author Shirley Jackson takes her readers through an exploration of both the house and the psyche of Eleanor, so that the two are intricately intertwined.
Though written in 1959, the novel will appeal to modern audiences in terms of writing and psychological depth and realism. What modern audiences may not appreciate, however, is the subtlety. The Haunting of Hill House employs terror rather than horror: some readers may get the sense that nothing happens, and in the end we are left with questions rather than explanations of the supernatural events. The novel's pacing, in comparison to Hollywood horror movies especially, is slow - but it is suspenseful.
If you like novels which brood on the hauntings of the mind without ever being too explicit - novels which invite you to ruminate - you will enjoy this novel immensely. Just be thankful you have your own dreams and fantasies to cushion you once you leave the book's "absolute reality" - you will need them.