The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson
"I think, that the concept of certain houses as unclean or forbidden - perhaps sacred - is as old as the mind of man. Certainly there are spots which inevitably attach themselves an atmosphere of holiness and goodness; it might not then be too fanciful to say that some houses are born bad."
I wanted to write a horror story, and I wanted to get into a weird mood in order to do it. And absolutely nothing is going to get you into a weird mood like a Shirley Jackson book. I figured, since it's so close to Halloween, I need to finally read the ultimate haunted house story: The Haunting of Hill House.
Jackson is of course masterful, as she always in, and she always captures the true spirit of psychological terror. And you can tell me about all the jump scares you've ever seen in your life, but nothing is as truly terrifying as a story that inhabits your mind. What you can expect from a Shirley Jackson story is one that will follow you through your lifetime, often because they have no resolution. I actually wrote that line before I read The Haunting, and it's spooky how exactly right this is.
In researching this book, I came upon a definition of the difference between horror and terror, of which I wasn't aware, which seems like an oversight being a writer. I liked this definition from Wikipedia: "Terror is usually described as the feeling of dread and anticipation that precedes the horrifying experience. By contrast, horror is the feeling of revulsion that usually follows a frightening sight, sound, or otherwise experience." Jackson, of course, delights in terror, and we the reader delight in being terrorized by her.
It creates it's own darkness, a book like this. While reading this book, I expected doors to slam behind me and disembodied whispers to follow me. Words are powerful, and if you believe that, than you can believe that books can cause madness. Jackson's books always toe that line, where not just the narrator but the reader herself questions her sanity.
"I think that an atmosphere like this one can find out the flaws and faults and weaknesses in all of us, and break us apart in a matter of days. We have only one defence, and that is running away."
The theme of a thing or place that causes madness is a common trope in horror, but rarely as well done as this. The house is a living, breathing character, and it's dark humour follows nearly every scene in the book. The madness scares us because it happens gradually, insidiously, in a way that we believe it could happen to us too. We attach to Eleanor as the narrative voice, and are chilled when the house gloms on to her as its next victim. Poor little Eleanor, never loved, never loved, she is vulnerable and becomes prey. However, if you see how Eleanor is first introduced in the book, it is to declare that which she hates. She has lived a small life of hate and resentment, and that is why I believe she is the weakess link.
One of the elements of the house I found the absolute creepiest is how every time, after being completely terrorized, the inhabitants find themselves feeling happy, even joyful.
"It's charming, Eleanor thought, surprised at herself; she wondered if she was the first person ever to find Hill House charming and then thought, chilled, Or do they all think so, the first morning?"
Each morning they rose excited and happy for the day, even though they were praying for death the night before. It's not so much that they forgot what happened, but the relief of not being terrorized right in that moment was euphoric. When in fact they should be getting the fuck out of that house right now and never coming back. It actually reminded me a lot of how abusive relationships work, and of the awesome analogy from Captain Awkward about the House of Evil Bees. In case you've never hear of Captain Awkward, it's an amazing online advice column that often relates to issues of mental health. Anyhoo, an abusive relationship is like a house that occasionally attacks you with evil bees, but then the bees go away (for a minute) and you think it's okay to stay. It is not. I spent most of this book silently yelling: Get out now!
Although the house didn't actually harm anyone physically, it attacked the mind until everyone questioned their sanity. This trope frightens the crap out of me because it seems more present, more real, than say, zombies. We fear losing our minds or our control over our thoughts more than anything, because that could actually happen. If you're looking for another book similar to this, I can suggest The Red Tree, by Caitlín R. Kiernan, because it put me in the same mind frame. I would never read that book again, but if you enjoyed The Haunting of House Hill, you might get a chill out of that one.
My recommendation is to only read this book in the morning light, in bright sunshine, with a lovely cup of steaming coffee to warm your chilled spirit.