Sunday, October 31, 2010

Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House, novel and film

Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is the best "haunted house" novel I have read. I realize there may be those who have their own favorites here, and I would appreciate learning of some titles.

Haunted house stories seem to come in two flavors. There are those in which the innocent victims move into a house, usually somewhat isolated. The rent or sale price is absurdly low, and they feel they have stumbled onto a bargain. And, they don't understand why the house has been empty for so long.

The second type involves those who are knowledgeable about the house's unsavory past and intend to stay only a short time. Some come there as the result of a dare or a bet, and their stay normally is for one night only. Psychic researchers comprise the other type of short term residents, and they usually plan to stay at most a week or so, if that long. They are there to prove or disprove the existence of spirits. This type consists usually of one lead psychic researcher, usually an academic, and two to four assistants, who frequently are the psychic researcher's graduate students and whose main role is to provide victims for the demons that occupy the premises.

Jackson's characters belong to the latter group. Dr Montague is determined to make a name for himself by proving the existence of the spiritual or non-material world. Hill House has a long and honorable history of being a true haunted house with ghostly appearances and tragic deaths. His assistants, though, are not typical graduate students. Over the years, Dr. Montague has collected newspaper reports of individuals who have been involved in events which involve some sort of spiritual or paranormal activity. Now that he has rented the house, he contacts these people and offers them a short term job as his assistant. He believes these people who have already been touched by the psychic activity would be more sensitive to the spiritual influences in the house.

Of the many he has contacted, only two appear. One is Eleanor Vance--the point of view character. She has come to escape her drab and restricted life. She has spent most of her life taking care of her invalid mother. The mother died several months ago, and Eleanor now lives with her sister and brother-in-law. She is bullied and abused by her sister. This is her first attempt at changing her life. She sees this as an adventure, one that will change her life. Her mantra throughout is "Journeys end in lovers meeting."

We never learn much about the other two assistants--Theodora, except for some hints that she has led a somewhat adventurous life, and Luke, who really isn't an assistant but the nephew of the woman who owns Hill House. Accepting Luke as part of his team was necessary if Dr. Montague was to rent the house.

In addition to the four researchers are the Dudleys. They are the caretakers, he mostly outdoors and she indoors. They don't stay the night, but leave as soon as it begins to get dark. They are a strange pair, well fit for Hill House.

Approximately a week after Dr. Montague and his team move in, they are joined by two unwelcome visitors--Dr Montague's wife and her friend Arthur. At best one might call them comic relief. She is the bossy, take-charge type who knows everything and knows how to do everything better than anybody else. She has come to take charge of the study. She is a complete believer in everything, from astrology to the use of the planchette, a type of Ouija board. She firmly believes that all spirits are benign as long as one treats them with "infinite compassion," something only she is best qualified to do. While I generally am on the side of the humans, I will gladly make an exception in her case and nominate her as First Victim.

If one is looking for buckets of gore and body parts scattered about, one will be disappointed here. The terror and fright are generated more by not knowing who or what occupies Hill House. The tension and suspense slowly build as we see Eleanor become increasingly influenced and changed as the days pass. Moreover, in spite of the terrifying manifestations that take place during the night, Eleanor finds herself more and more attracted to the house. At one point she thinks, "Odd, she thought sleepily, that the house should be so dreadful and yet in many respects so physically comfortable--the soft bed, the pleasant lawn, the good fire, the cooking of Mrs Dudley."

One of those manifestations that seems most chilling is the following: it is night and Eleanor and Theadora are in sharing a bedroom and "From the room next door, the room which until that morning had been Theadora's , came the steady low sound of a voice babbling, too low for words to be understood, too steady for disbelief. . .Eleanor and Theadora listened, and the low, steady sound went on and on, the voice lifting sometimes for an emphasis on a mumbled word, falling sometimes to a breath, going on and on. Then, without warning, there was a little laugh, the small gurgling laugh that broke through the babbling, and rose as it laughed, on up and up the scale, and then broke off suddenly in a little painful gasp, and the voice went on."

I find that small gurgling laugh, amidst that mumbling voice, most chilling, especially since it seems to accompany the horrendous blows struck at the intervening door, the blows that almost but not quite break down the door. Who or what is beyond the door?

Two films were made of The Haunting of Hill House, one in 1963 with Julie Harris as Eleanor and Claire Bloom as Theadora, and a remake in 1999, with digital special effects and gore, from what I have read. I have seen the 1963 version and found it a very good adaptation. The most significant difference was in the portrayal of Dr. Montague's wife. In the film she is portrayed as a complete skeptic and insists on sleeping in the nursery, the heart or source of the ghostly manifestations. I haven't seen the remake yet, but if I find it I will take a look at it.

Overall Reaction: a great novel and a very good film version--the 1963 version anyway. Highly recommended. It being Halloween, tonight would be a good night for either the novel or the film.


  1. The 1963 film is one of my all-time favorites. I love that scene with the blows on the door, too. It's chilling without really showing much. The book is also great.

  2. Cheryl,

    I thought that it is a very good adaptation of the novel.

    Have you seen the 1999 remake? Netflix doesn't have it, nor does the local library. I've heard/seen only a few comments about it, and most were that the 1963 version was superior, even without the digital special effects.

  3. Fred,

    I started to watch it ( the 1999 remake) once on TV, but didn't see all of it. I wasn't that impressed with it. Alot of CGI in that version, with not much left to the audience's imagination.

  4. Cheryl,

    Did you voluntarily stop watching it?

  5. Fred,

    It was a few years ago, so I don't remember. I didn't go searching it out later, though. Now you've got my curiosity going. You can find it free on You Tube - if they haven't deleted it - so I guess I'll watch it there and let you know what I think.

  6. Cheryl,

    I'd be interested in reading what you think of it. I'm still on dial-up modem, so I can't take advantage of the stuff on YouTube, etc.

  7. Fred,

    Well I watched 1st. the 1963 movie, then the abomination that is the 1999 version. NOTHING in common with either the 1st. movie or the book. Whole new story, with a few lines from the 1st. movie thrown in. It's a CGI lollapalooza! Eleanor is a cross between Nancy Drew and Ellen Ripley in Aliens, telling the ghost of Hugh Crane "I'm family grandpa, and I've come home. You go to hell!". She rescues everyone by fighting him, then dies herself. Wow! Incredibly bad movie, even when not comparing it to the book or previous film. DO NOT WATCH THIS SUCKFEST!

  8. Cheryl,

    Thanks for your review on the 1999 version. It seems as though it's even worse than I expected.

  9. I saw the original 1963 film as a child and it made quite an impression. As an adult I was able to find the videotape of the flick. We also found the 1999 film remake which was good, (not great) but as with all modern films, relied too much on CMI rather than direction and acting. We have ordered the book by Shirley Jackson and can't wait to read her novel.

  10. Rick,

    I think you will enjoy the novel. The terror is based on what is unseen and unknown rather than blood and body parts scattered about. The 1963 version is quite close to the book. I haven't seen the 1999 version but Cheryl has and left a comment about it.