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Review: “The Haunting of Hill House (1959)” by Shirley Jackson (5 Stars)

A place of nuanced genius where psychological suspense meets the supernatural highlighting the lulls of reality in which we deceive ourselves while we all slowly tilt toward an inevitable yet unpredictable whizz-bang ending!

The story told by Jackson gives a loose account of the protagonist’s experiences at an alleged haunted house. The premise feels droll and full of artifice and the author paces the narrative in even fashion as we literally drive with the main character, Eleanor, to the story. However, the nuanced prose in which this story is wrought is delivered to us in a much more thoughtful manner than what initially appears.

We are first introduced to the protagonist and given clever details and insights into her personality and life experience before she walks past the guardian’s gate of supernatural terrors. All of this is done quick enough in this shortish book, but it leaves us with a very clear sense of who Eleanor is without the burden and weight of so much heavy prose. Perhaps this deft brevity is part of the genius of Shirley Jackson, for in counterbalance the elements which we come to readily expect in a tale of Gothic fiction bring about their own importance without unnecessary words or over-explanation. Of course, ambiguity is a classic tool in the genres of horror and weird fiction (a favorite element for me personally), though here none of it feels contrived.

The other aspect of writing carried through the narrative is the subtle way Jackson filters in the psychological elements of suspense for the protagonist which run in parallel to the rote pedantic educational expositions of the Doctor character and his wife, who serve more as checks on reality and sources of humor—another unsung element. Comedy and horror are sisters in their relationship of genre and they are often played against each other to great or ridiculous effect in film. Here, the comedy follows a sort of biting sarcasm to complement the evolving terror without jolting one out of the narrative, nor (and more importantly) as a cheap literary device designed to pull the emotional arc of the plot forward. Jackson’s use of humor feels original and different and in keeping with the characters. The absurd doesn’t feel so absurd or out of place. The laughs fit in with the growing dread and sense of helplessness in a sort of existential way.

The other characters occasionally tread near to crossing the danger line of becoming farcical and one dimensional, but we stay close to Eleanor in a ghostly sort of way. It is this unsettling closeness that breathes life and terror into the events that transpire. Our reader’s lens travels through Eleanor’s viewpoint and yet it somehow remains on the outside looking in. All of this fits together in the way that a picture might remain slightly out of focus, blurry enough to reveal all which needs seeing but also serving to make one feel uncomfortable—providing a sort of shifted-perspective on the story or on life itself. We acquire a genuine familiarity and relatability to Eleanor even as things go dark for her.

This story is heralded by many critics as the best haunted house story that ever was. Reading it in later times, after having read or seen or heard other efforts of horror in both literature or film or even in radio plays, one wonders who else might have drawn from this well. And then one reads along, nodding at the seemingly familiar mile posts expected along the way. However, as the narrative continues, we realize that the mile posts stopped following the highway somewhere a ways back and that now the path has transformed from the asphalt and straight lines of civilized society into the crooked and roughshod dirt of the untamed wilderness. By then, there is no choice but to meet doom’s end and seek the shrine of old and ancient divinities to find out just what’s become of oneself.  Suddenly, the familiar is not really as familiar as one suspected.

Don’t skip this one…get wholly lost in the darkness…and the terror inside.

Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Tune-In Radio, Stitcher, Google Play Music, YouTube or our website (www.nodeodorant.com).

Episode Link: https://nodeodorantinouterspace.wordpress.com/2019/10/15/review-the-haunting-of-hill-house-shirley-jackson

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2019 in Book Reviews

 

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