by Shirley Jackson
Our main character Eleanor steals the car she bought with her sister in order to answer a summons for an educational visit to a ‘haunted house,’ where she is to meet the doctor conducting an experiment, another woman similarly summoned, and the heir to the house. The house’s reputation precedes it, and while there are two caretakers who keep up the house it hasn’t been inhabited for a long time. When it was inhabited it was only for a few days at a time.
It’s soon revealed the doctor has called the two women (and many others, but these were the two to accept) due to circumstances in their pasts that suggest psychic sensitivity, and as the group meets for the first time and prepares to settle down for the first night in the house tensions begin to rise and anxieties creep in at the edges, worsening as the days pass. Anything more of the plot might risk exposing some of elements that give the story its effectiveness.
There is no gore, so the squeamish can breathe easy. By today’s standards of horror this book compares more tame than it would have in the context of its 1959 release, but that doesn’t for one second reduce its effectiveness or its compulsion to keep turning pages.
An amazing scene is written early on and is the first point you’ll realize you’re reading something truly special, where Eleanor, dining in the strange new town before first approaching the house, overhears parents trying to get their young daughter to drink her milk out of the restaurant’s glassware and not out of her own ‘cup of stars’ waiting at the family’s home. The power in the scene comes from Eleanor willing the young girl to refuse the restaurant’s glass, refuse the milk entirely, because once she begins compromising in these things she can never go back.
This book is considered one of the greatest horror novels ever written. Centipede Press has it listed at #1, and Stephen Jones has it in his top 100 at #60 (Mr. Jones’ list isn’t so much a ‘best of’ though, as ‘most influential,’ as is evidenced by his numbers 1-5 all being written before 1800). The Haunting of Hill House is a fascinating read, told in a fairly simple, straightforward style, eschewing fancy language in favor of a tighter, cleaner story. When the story moves into mystics the author weaves the more complex fabrics beautifully, culminating in an outstanding ending to the novel.
Even if less severe than modern fare, this is a must-read for those looking at horror.
“In the night,” Mrs. Dudley said, and smiled outright. “In the dark,” she said, and closed the door behind her.