Book Review: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

© Penguin Classics, 2006.

Several years ago, I watched The Haunting (1999). It was not an intentional watching of the movie and I actually forgot that I had watched it shortly after. Now and then, I would recall a scene and try to remember where it was from without much luck. At that time, I was not aware that it was an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting of Hill House. In fact, it wasn’t until more recently that I returned to my long forgotten passion for the written word. In a way, I’m a bit glad that I read the book – or in this case, listened to it.

One of the largest determining factors for me when I’m listening to an audio book is the quality of the narration, and in this case I highly suggest the version narrated by David Warner over Bernadette Dunne. Warner’s voice is far gentler on the ears and his heavy English lends an utterly unique feeling to the story. I only listened to a sample of Dunne’s version and found it very painful on my ears. Warner’s reading is published by Phoenix, whereas Dunne’s is from Blackstone Audio. Considering that I use audiobooks in order to help me relax along the hour long commute to and from work, the quality of the recording is vital to whether or not I am capable of stomaching the book (and for this reason, I nearly dropped House).

The Haunting of Hill House was published in 1959 by Viking, six years before Shirley Jackson’s death. The book itself is lauded as a classic example of haunted house fiction, earning praise from my all time favorite author, Stephen King. It is a story in which four individuals take up summer residence in the famed Hill House, where they embark upon an unexpectedly brief journey to learn more about the supernatural – and perhaps even about their own selves. Each character is riddled with their own flaws and, to my great surprise, are not filled with the incessantly needy yearning for romance that is so common in other books.

I can also admit that none of the characters are particularly likable. The character that I find most tolerable is Eleanor Vance, our star for this read who clearly suffers from mental illness. Given the time in which the book takes place, it is almost heartbreaking how little others are able to pick up regarding her mental state and, when they finally do, the disdain they treat her with is extremely painful to watch. My least favorite of the cast is Mrs. Montague and her planchette. Mrs. Montague seems rather incapable of caring about anyone other than herself and goes to great lengths to undermine her husband. Her short fuse makes her utterly unbearable and, were I to cross paths with her, I can’t promise that I wouldn’t want to throttle her.

As far as the haunting of the manse itself goes, there’s very little to it. While Jackson’s prose is meticulous and gorgeous to behold, at no point did I feel any sense of unease. Much of what is meant to be unsettling is not supernatural in origin, but derived from the interactions of the characters. In a way, the reader is simply a passenger along for the ride in Eleanor’s descent into madness, and it is from this that unease can be felt than by anything ethereal.

I enjoyed The Haunting of Hill House and I find it to be a pleasant read (or in this case, listen), but it is not among my favorites when it comes to horror. I felt no real need to keep going and none of the edge-of-your-seat anxiety that horror fans like myself thrive on. It is certainly a beautiful book and Hill House has a hauntingly sad past, but other than that I did not find the story to be overly impressive. While some of this could be attributed to the fact that I had seen the movie in the past, I don’t really feel that is the case – especially since I seem to be in agreement with several other readers.

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