Penguin Books, 1959, 246 pages
Past the rusted gates and untrimmed hedges, Hill House broods and waits.
Four seekers have come to the ugly, abandoned old mansion: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of the psychic phenomenon called haunting; Theodora, his lovely and lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a lonely, homeless girl well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the adventurous future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable noises and self-closing doors, but Hill House is gathering its powers and will soon choose one of them to make its own.
Shirley Jackson has inspired generations of horror writers, including Richard Matheson and Stephen King. She did not invent the "Party of dumbasses spends the night in a haunted house" story, but she owned it with this book. The Haunting of Hill House is a study in how to generate shivers with minimal gore and violence. It's also been the inspiration for two direct film adaptations and (at least indirectly) one awesome board game.
The story opens with an expository chapter about Dr. Montague, a paranormal investigator who fancies himself a lettered man of Science who wants to spend the night in an 80-year-old house reputed to be haunted and shunned by the locals. It has the usual haunted house history - built by a creepy old coot, owned and occupied by a reclusive, tragedy-prone family, a magnet for deaths and suicides, and everyone who's moved in since has left immediately.
Dr. Montague hires two people with a history of paranormal encounters to stay with him, on the theory that they're more likely to attract paranormal activity in a haunted house. The owners of the house also insist on sending the wastrel scion of their family as an excuse to give him something to do.
Four people with almost nothing in common makes about as much sense as any arbitrary gathering of scoobies thrown into a haunted house. But the plot isn't really important: it's about the characters. Hill House is as much a psychological experience as a supernatural one. Jackson's characters are all marvelously and disturbingly realized as ordinary people, all hiding behind masks.
Dr. Montague is fussy, stuffy, and (when his wife shows up later in the book), revealed to be not the authoritative man of science, but a dabbler in the supernatural trying to escape his henpecked day to day life. Eleanor, the protagonist if this book has one, is a timid young woman used to being pushed around and ignored. She shows up at Hill House because she figures anything has to be better than her life with her sister and brother-in-law. Theodora, a brassy, sarcastic single girl, is the worldly opposite of Eleanor, making time with bad boy Luke, the genial, louche nephew of the current owners.
Adding to the creepiness of the setting are the local couple who maintain Hill House, and serve its guests. Mr. Dudley is vaguely sinister without ever actually threatening anyone; Mrs. Dudley, delivering her strict rules and her warnings that "After dark, no one will hear you call for help" with a sort of dour, puritanical delight, has a creepy Mrs. Danvers vibe.
Later in the book, Dr. Montague's domineering, insufferable planchette-reading wife arrives, along with her driver/"companion" Anthony.
But the main character, of course, is Hill House.
Hill House has bumps and shivers and shadows and cold spots and closing doors and whispering voices and all the other special effects of any self-respecting haunted house, but naturally the real horror comes from the effect it has on its victims. One member of our group of house-sitters proves to be most susceptible to its blandishments. I shan't spoil, though it's pretty obvious almost immediately who's not going to leave Hill House.
This is a ghost story rather than a horror story; for connoisseurs of haunted house stories I wouldn't even say it's necessarily the best. But it is a classic whose influence can be felt in every haunted house story and movie ever made since, and Shirley Jackson does a lot with a little; definitely a must-read on a dark October night.
The Haunting (1963)
The first of two adaptations by this name. This faithful black and white adaptation captures the creepiness of Jackson's novel perfectly. Dr. Montague is renamed "Dr. Lockwood" (a shout-out to Wuthering Heights, perhaps?), but otherwise the cast is nearly as Jackson described them. It's particularly interesting to see how they made a haunted house spooky with almost zero special effects.
The Haunting (1999)
In this version, a more sinister professor has lured his subjects to Hill House under false pretenses that would violate any university's ethics board. Hill House is a massive, castle-sized mansion with its own mirrored funhouse, secret doors, internal moats, and absurdly oversized amusement park-scale sculptures.
Liam Neeson is "Doctor Marrow," Catherine Zeta-Jones is the New York party girl "Theo," Lili Taylor is "Nell," and Owen Wilson is "Luke" — all characters barely resembling the originals. The first part of the film appears to be a remake, but then it goes straight into big, dumb, and stupid with a violent, special effects-laden supernatural good vs. evil plot that had nothing to do with Shirley Jackson's novel. The 1963 version is far better; better yet, read the book.
Verdict: A bit dated, not the first and maybe not the best haunted house story ever, The Haunting of Hill House remains a creepy tale perfect for Halloween from an American master of understated horror. 9/10
Also by Shirley Jackson: My review of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
My complete list of book reviews.