I am physically unable to say the title of this novel without the words twisting themselves into House on Haunted Hill. It just won’t work.
Dr. John Montague is a paranormal researcher, like a ghost hunter without his own scripted television show, and he has heard many tales of Hill House. In order to find and document the existence of supernatural phenomenon, Montague decides to invite a group of people to spend the summer in the house with him. He is joined by a relative of the owner and the only two of the group to respond to his invite – free-spirited Theodora and timid Eleanor, our protagonist. The group stay in the house and try to document what they experience.
Eleanor is a somewhat broken single woman in her thirties who has dedicated the last decade of her life to caring for her recently-deceased mother. She now lives with her sister’s family and has to run away against their will to come to Hill House. She doesn’t really care what she’ll find while staying there; she just wants to escape and live her own life. I really enjoyed that aspect of the story, the idea of Eleanor being able to drop her old constraints to try to reinvent herself. There’s one scene when they all first arrive in the house, where they sit together and all invent fictional backstories. It was a brilliant scene that had the group bond in a funny and lighthearted way, but it was also interesting to consider what each fictional backstory actually told the reader about their personalities.
I loved this so much more than I thought I would. The characters were all fantastic, I loved Eleanor’s attempt to break out of her old self and deal with her inner doubt. Theodora was so much fun and a great counterpoint to Eleanor’s personality. Dr. Montague worked perfectly as a guide and father figure to the group, and I thoroughly enjoyed the comic relief his wife brought when she arrived. This was dark and atmospheric, but it was also funny at times. The group’s dynamic and banter was great, and having those well-developed characters really raised the stakes during the creepy bits.
What I loved most was how the story developed in surprising ways. I think I was actually expecting a more straight-forward haunted house tale, but this went in a very different direction. Eleanor’s internal struggle, how the house was affecting her, was so interesting to read, and the fact that it was happening to our viewpoint character and wasn’t overly explained or gimmicky was quite a feat of storytelling. There’s a lot left open to interpretation, and I found myself mulling over the plot, the ending, and the characters for days after finishing this.
I don’t really know much about Shirley Jackson, outside of how much people rave about her short story The Lottery, which I thought I read in high school, but having glanced at a summary, I’m now not sure. For the last twenty years I thought The Lottery was about a boy who comes up with winning horse names by getting off on a rocking horse, but it turns out I’ve had it confused with The Rocking-Horse Winner by D.H. Lawrence. Also, that may not be what that story is about. It’s been a while.
I will definitely be reading more from Shirley Jackson. Her writing in this was a real pleasure to read.