We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘genre mash-ups’, where we pick two random genres and try to find a book that fits both.
For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!
Book: “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson
Publishing Info: Viking, 1959
Where Did We Get This Book: Audiobook from the library!
Genre Mash-up: Historical and Horror
Book Description: First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, the lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.
I first read “The Haunting of Hill House” in middle school, egged on by both my mother and my love for the 1962 film “The Haunting.” Even though I knew pretty much what to expect then, it still managed to creep me out, the story of a haunted house and the paranormal investigators within in giving me a serious dose of terror. Revisiting it for book club has been a real treat, especially with the recent (and VERY different) adaptation on Netflix being so fresh in my mind.
What struck me again as I listened to it is that Jackson does a really good job of not only setting up moments that are genuinely terrifying, but that she is just as good at writing the ‘down time’ moments. The slow build of the actual threat is fun to see, as Eleanor, Theo, Luke, and Dr. Montague go from mildly skeptical, to amused, to anxious, to outright horrified. The escalation, starting with doors closing on their own and cold spots turning into banging on doors and hallucinations, is slow and it burns as such, and it builds up terror in ways that few authors can achieve. Jackson holds her cards to her vest, but as she lays them out at her own pace the reader is continually caught unawares and left breathless.
I also like how well rounded our four characters are. While it’s mostly from Eleanor’s point of view, I think that we get a pretty good sense of Theo, Luke, and Dr. Montague. The only focused upon characters (as opposed to one offs like Eleanor’s sister) who are laughably awful are Dr. Montague’s wife, and her ‘friend’ Arthur (what is up with Arthur? Is he a lover of Mrs. Montague’s or just a weird hanger on?), as her prim condescension is laid on VERY thick and his toxic masculinity is overdone even for the original time period. But even this serves the purpose of banding our four together tighter, which makes the ultimate climax and fate of one of them all the more upsetting. My favorite is Theo, the empath with a snide streak, who may or may not be goading Eleanor on for her own amusements. Given that Eleanor is our primary character, and she is slowly slipping into obsession and madness, it’s hard to know just how manipulative Theo is, and I like the second guessing Jackson made me do (another side note: Is Theo coded as bisexual? If so, is that a facet of a too often trotted out trope of the untrustworthy bisexual? So many questions).
I quite enjoyed my second reading of “The Haunting of Hill House.” It’s a classic endeavor into the gothic/haunted house story, and I feel that it holds up pretty well after all this time. If you are interested in reading it because of the Netflix series, know that it’s VERY different. But don’t let that dissuade you. I think that it would give you a better appreciation of what the show did. In any case, it’s a spooky read for a dark night.
Poor Kate is a real trooper about bookclub. As you may have noticed, our bookclub is made up of an over-abundance of fantasy readers, so that genre gets probably more than its fair share of representation in the titles we choose. Obviously this works out great for me! But it leaves Kate and a few of the others having to read out of their comfort zones quite a bit. And they’re great about it! But it’s also probably not as good for the fantasy fans among us, as well, since we’re often less challenged to read books that wouldn’t cross our paths anyways. Not so this month! We have swapped roles and here I am, in all of my magic system and unicorn-loving form, reviewing a horror novel! (Another shout out to Kate for finding an audiobook version of this for me on YouTube since the book is understandably pretty popular right now due to the Netflix adaptation and my place on the holds list at the library was getting me nowhere fast!).
Obviously, I don’t read horror stories, so I don’t have a lot of comparisons to draw from. Instead, sadly, what I do have are a lot of tired tropes that I’ve seen ad nauseum in the few horror movies that I’ve somehow watched (how, HOW, did I end up seeing not only “Saw” but several of its sequels?!). This has unfortunately tinged my perception of horror novels, and while I’m sure that the equivalent torture porn, jump-scare prone type storytelling can be found in horror fiction as in this genre of film, this was thankfully nothing like it. It feels almost insulting to type this out about what is known to be a classic work of horror literature, but I was so surprised and impressed by the writing itself.
It was through this immense strength in imagery and poetic turns of phrase that Jackson was able to rise about what is, now at least, a fairly familiar set up: a bunch of people going to a haunted house to “test” how haunted it truly was. I quickly became truly invested in the characters and the detailed descriptions not only helped create a strong sense of place, but obviously helped ratchet up the tension. And yes, tense it was! Again, I don’t have anything to compare this to as far as its creepiness level, but I, for one, was pretty spooked by a good bit of this. But because of the strong characters and even stronger writing, I was too invested to think of putting it down.
As Kate referenced as well, the ambiguity of everything that is happening only adds to the tension. Our main character becomes more and more unreliable and readers are left questioning everything they’re told. Is the house truly haunted? Is someone playing a game with them? Are they all just going mad? A lot of horror producers, mostly for film, often talk about how it’s what goes unseen that is the most scary. Once you “reveal” your monster, that original level of fear is hard to regain. And in this book, so much is unknown!
Ultimately, while this book completely freaked me out, I definitely enjoyed the push to get out there and read something that is so far outside of my comfort zone and not a book I would have ever picked up on my own. Frankly, if I wasn’t such a scardy cat, I think I could really like horror fiction, especially the type of horror that crosses over into the supernatural. Alas, I’m too chicken.
Kate’s Rating 9: A classic in horror literature that still brings readers back again and again, “The Haunting of Hill House” is a must for readers who want something scary.
Serena’s Rating 8: With no bench mark to judge it from, I really enjoyed “The Haunting of Hill House,” especially the strength of Jackson’s writing.
Book Club Questions
- Why do you think each person was motivated to come to Hill House? What do you think motivates the Dudleys to stay?
- The house is a character itself—could some of the strange phenomena be explained by the strange construction? The history of its inhabitants?
- What parallels can be drawn between past inhabitants of Hill House and the current visitors?
- The author chooses to have several characters witness strange phenomena, making it very definite that they are happening. What do you believe?
- How does Eleanor’s past influence her choices and actions?
- What do you make of the repetition of the passage at the beginning and the end of the novel?
- For those that have seen adaptations of this story—how do they compare? What is good/bad/different about them?
- Would you spend a week in a “haunted” house?
Find “The Haunting of Hill House” at your library using WorldCat!
Next Book Club Book: “Sky in the Deep” by Adrienne Young