The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson

Why oh why did I watch the Netflix show before reading the book? Yes, Netflix has come out with a ten-part TV series of the same name, and ostensibly based on the book. And Netflix being Netflix, they have created a cracker of the show. But clearly, after having read the book, the TV version is nothing like the book. Except for the names of some of the characters and that of the damned house, everything else is different.

But this review is not about the Netflix show, which seems to have gathered a fan following of its own. This review is of the book, written by Shirley Jackson and first published in 1959. As the title reveals, the story is about a mansion that is believed to be haunted by the residents of the nearest town, Hillsdale. Originally built by Hugh Crain for his family, the house was particularly ill-omened and brought about many misfortunes on the family.

There have been many controversial stories about it so much so that the residents avoid the place as well as deride any one who wishes to go to Hill House. No one visits their anymore except for the Dudley couple who act as caretakers to the mansion. But even they maintain a strict rule not to be near the house after dark.

Dr Montague, a paranormal investigator, wishes to spend some time in Hill House to conduct experiments that would prove or disprove the presence of supernatural phenomena. And thus he enlists the help of a few volunteers to assist him in this endeavor. Two volunteers show up, and along with Luke, the heir to Hill House, the doctor reach Hill House in order to conduct his experiment. At first the place seems normal enough, although spooky and definitely unlivable. Doors don’t stay open, the walls and floors of the house seem constructed in a manner to induce nausea and disorientation, and an utterly mysterious housekeeper keeps flitting in and out of the house at meal times. Her obsession with punctuality and order is the comic relief to the sombreness of Hill House.

In every page, it is clear that Hill House is the central character of the story. Almost each and every scene involves the house prominently or in the background, but never out of sight. The prose by Shirley Jackson ensures that neither the characters nor the reader ever forgets that the house is all around them, maybe watching silently.

“When they were silent for a moment the quiet weight of the house pressed down from all around them.”

As the team conduct their experiments, they discover inexplicable phenomena that their instruments fail to register. This frustrates Dr Montague as he expects that he may not be able to prove his theories scientifically. Gradually, the house seems to be leaving messages for one of the members of the group, beckoning the character to return home. In order to further complicate things, the doctor’s wife arrives one night to communicate with the spirits directly, using the planchette.

The final night (atleast as part of the book) describes the terrifying incident where the house finally gets to one of the characters much to the horror of the others.

Having watched the Netflix show before reading this book, I was initially tempted to compare and check back if a particular part of the book was present in the show. But that would be doing injustice both to the book and to the show. So instead I read the book on its own merits, without any comparison to the show, and realized that it was a well-written and frightening book in its own stead. Both the opening and the closing lines of the book are already my favourite lines of 2018 and they effectively cement in place the evil nature of the house.

“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.”

“This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity. It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope.”

In order to truly enjoy this book, I suggest you do not watch the Netflix show before you complete the book. If you have already watched the show, treat the books as a different story and you will enjoy it all the more. Else, you would come out disappointed at one or the other depending on which version gets to you the most. I, for one, enjoyed both the book and the show and loved the use of language to create an unsettling and terrifying environment in prose.

“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. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”