When I first saw that the Haunting of Hill House was on this list I was a little hesitant. I had watched that awful awful movie from the late 90s when I was a child and remember me and my friends laughing through it. I’ve always been annoyed at those people who say “I don’t get scared during horror movies, I just laugh because they’re so stupid” but I remember in this particular case it was true. We were young boys, watching a horror movie in the basement during a sleepover and all the lights were off and yet at no point in time were any of us scared. So you can imagine that I’d be a little hesitant about reading the book that inspired such a subpar horror film. Well I should have remembered that movie adaptations of books always take creative liberties and end up butchering the original content. That was the case as I read Shirley Jackson’s classic ghost novel that left me unsettled, unnerved and unable to sleep.
This ghost story was so incredibly unique in that it didn’t create a specific villain or antagonist that haunted the characters throughout the novel. Rather it introduced the idea of a haunted house and ran with that to the fullest degree by simply having the house be the true villain of the story. The house is described as being built in a unique manner, in that rooms weren’t built using proper angles or had uneven walls/ceiling sections that created distortions. The lack of windows and lighting fixtures made it almost impossible to navigate at night and several sections had numerous doors that all led to one connecting room to throw off anyone trying to leave. It basically sounded like a house from a nightmare or a theme park’s haunted house. The actual hauntings that occurred were minimal, the fear and frustration of the character’s came moreso from actually navigating and getting lost in the house. It was a house that was designed to instill fear, throw in some unexplained ghosts and you’ve got yourself one of the scariest settings I’ve ever read.
Shirley Jackson published this novel in 1959, before the horror story character archetypes really existed. And yet somehow she managed to include each one in here. We’re introduced to a brainy leader, a boyish charmer, a promiscuous free spirit and an isolated innocent virgin – who of course is our main character. But Shirley Jackson didn’t focus on making each one complete stereotypes, rather she gave each one depth and did quite an amazing job of developing each of their characters. At one point the leader’s wife comes to the house and shows a dominant personality that completely overshadows that of their previous leader which makes him appear weak and vulnerable. The boyish charmer discusses how his family is constantly disappointed by him and has low expectations so he makes up for it with his rebellious spirit but it makes us feel for him. The free spirit quickly becomes an irritating character and her charm is lost quickly as it’s shown that she’s incredibly selfish and shallow. And of course Eleanor, our introvert, starts acting out and coming out of her shell as you learn of her miserable isolated life caring for her demanding mother. In the end you really felt like you knew each of these characters at their core and forgot the archetypes they were supposed to be portraying. As a group their relationship is incredible and my favourite scenes were always the ones which all 4 were together.
The horror of this story was so incredibly unique as you never actually see a single ghost or read about an undistinguishable experience any character has. It’s as if you’re reading a real life account of someone’s actual ghost hunt in that the scares focus on bangs, laughter, cold winds, travelling shadows and cryptic messages. But as no point in time does Eleanor face down a ghost in the house and at no point are they put in immediate danger of death. Rather it’s a story that makes you question what is real and what’s imagined. As the book progresses Eleanor starts losing her grip on reality which just furthers your questioning about the validity of any of the incidents in the house. It’s the kind of horror that kind of sneaks into your brain, it’s more unsettling than anything as you constantly expect to see something and yet nothing truly happens. It’s a feeling similar to when you’re in a dark room searching for the light switch, and you know nothing is in there but the longer you can’t find the light switch the more and more you scare yourself. This book gave me the identical feeling. I kept getting more and more scared, expecting something terrifying to appear and yet it never did. It just left me with that feeling of dread, and when the book was done I felt exhausted. She did a great job of building anticipation and fear without making you feel let down.
I’ve never seen the original film, but I saw that it was incredibly well reviewed in the 60’s. Unfortunately though I watched the 90s version which was nominated for several “worst movie of the year” awards and had some of the worst special effects since….well ever. The choices of actors (Liam Neeson, Owen Wilson, Catherine Zeta Jones and…..that woman from The Conjuring) were actually pretty accurate, but it was like they had no directing and the dialogue was poor. The original story was written for the dialogue you’d hear in the early 60’s. Lots of wit, charm and quick comebacks. The movie took this story and modernized it, losing a lot of this dialogue which forced the writer’s to try and create meaningful dialogue that was clunky and didn’t work. The final climax in the book was so unsettling, whereas the final climax in the film watched like an action movie with a giant CG monster in the end (I kid you not). It wasn’t scary, it wasn’t fun and it certainly left me without any lingering fear. Basically it was terrible and if you watch any version, watch the one from the 60s (even though I haven’t seen it) or just read the book. Don’t watch the debacle from the 90’s.
The Haunting of Hill House was a relatively quick 180 page read (it took me a little longer to read than I’d like to admit due to lack of reading time over the past few weeks) that will unnerve you. It’s by no means the scariest book ever if you enjoy the big payoff of actually seeing or witnesses a final battle with the ghost/demon/monster/killer. It’s the perfect book if you’re home alone, house sitting or spending a weekend in an isolated cabin of sorts. Overall I strongly recommend it to any ghost lovers, any horror lovers or anyone looking for a fun read from a different time period. It won’t win over any non-horror fans, but if you’re a non-horror fan then why are you reading about a haunted house!
Up next is Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, one of the books I’m excited about the most! We’ll see how it goes!