After being impressed with the Netflix horror/thriller series ‘The Haunting of Hill House’, which is loosely based on a novel of the same name by American writer Shirley Jackson, it was only a matter of time until I read the original source material. Let’s start by stating this – they are very, very different.
In the book, the story is set in a place called Hillsdale and follows the quest of Dr John Montague, who rents ‘Hill House’ for a month, an 80-year-old mansion notorious for being haunted, in the hopes of recording supernatural activity and writing a sensational book on it. Only two people agree to assist him on his bizarre adventure, two women who are polar opposites – Eleanor Vance, a shy introvert, and Theodora, a confident hipster. They are joined by Luke Sanderson, a young man who belongs to the family that owns the property and who’d also eventually inherit it. So unlike the Netflix series where the story centers around one family, the primary characters in Jackson’s novel aren’t related at all.
The greatest achievement of this novel is how the author weaves a dark, ominous and oppressive atmosphere around the house, managing to create a sense of dread in the reader’s heart. Hill House doesn’t have ghosts, demons or vile apparitions that would give its inhabitants a stroke, instead, it seems to have more of a psychological effect. It’s like the house is a character in itself, a sinister presence, tormenting the minds of those who visit it. Jackson describes the rooms and corners of the property with so much detail, that readers will immediately find themselves transported to its premises. A tragic history of it’s origins and the original owner Hugh Crane, who also happened to design it, gives it a more sinister touch.
It’s important to note that the novel came out in 1959, and yet, Jackson avoids the most common trope that horror movies and books continue to use even today, much to the chagrin of readers/viewers – scenes where the group disperses to explore a haunted house, making themselves vulnerable to attacks. Dr John’s group very early on decides that they are going to watch each other’s back and stick together at all costs, except when they retire for the night. The reader is rarely given the opportunity to question the intelligence of the group, their sanity however, is a completely different matter.
What sticks out most in the book is how the four characters, who are complete strangers, establish an easy camaraderie, almost like they are a tight-knit family. It’s Dr John’s group versus the evil house, a game of sorts, where the odds are stacked against the newcomers. The author puts more focus on the women protagonists – Eleanor and Theodora, who become friends from the moment they lay eyes on each other, like long lost sisters. It’s through these two women that Jackson displays her power of writing characters. Just as quickly as the two become friends, they quickly develop a rather acrimonious bond too, spiting each other in subtle ways.
The limited number of characters gives Jackson enough scope to sketch each of their personalities in vivid brush-strokes. Apart from the primary group of four who come to live at Hill House, there is Mr & Mrs Dudley who take care of the house, but never stay on after sunset. Mrs Dudley is like a boarding school warden/cook/housekeeper rolled into one, who is least amused by the group’s endeavor to track and record any ghostly happenings in the house. Towards the end of the novel, two new characters make their entrance, Mrs Montague and her friend Arthur. They offer an interesting contrast to the already existing roster of guests in the mansion. While Mr Montague believes in taking a more scientific approach to the supernatural, his wife believes in spirit-boards and seances.
The pace of the book never slackens, it doesn’t feel tedious at any point; if anything, if feels like the climax rolls in too soon and finishes off in a flash. Making the ending a little underwhelming, especially because much is left to the reader’s imagination. We have to draw our own conclusions about the end. Also, some things are left completely unexplained – like why the Dudleys take care of the house, despite their evident fear of the property and adamant refusal to stay on the grounds once the sun sets.
Jackson cleverly leaves the reader wondering – is Hill House actually haunted at all or are its inhabitants simply ill-fated? It’s a 4/5 from me.
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