The Haunting of Hill House: Important but Unimpressive

One of the first lessons you learn on undertaking a critical reading of media is that influential doesn’t always mean good. When something is good in its own time and long after, we call it a “classic”. When something is good in its own time but not in others, we call it “outdated”. But what do we call the stuff somewhere in between? In this case, we call it Hill House.

Which House?

Eleanor is rescued by the Doctor on the staircase

First published in 1959, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is probably the most famous haunted house story ever written.

But given that I had never heard of it until It became the story of choice for a book club I frequent, asking who it is famous among is a decent question. The answer is that Hill House is revered and renowned amongst what might be called the Horror Intelligencia. Within the ranks of critics and creators alike, Hill House retains a grim position of special dignity and honor.

Stephen King touts it as one of the finest horror books of the century. Neil Gaiman went so far as to say it was THE scariest work of fiction he had ever read. Carmen Maria Machado said the same. Reviews since 1959 from critics in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Atlantic, and others have been unendingly positive.

The Haunting of Hill House is nothing less than an indisputable cornerstone for horror generally and a fundamental equation for haunted house stories specifically.

So, I read it.

Hill House

An exterior shot of Hill House in cold daylight

The story of Hill House is arranged in a format now seen as classic. A crew of various nobodies with vague connections to the supernatural find themselves in a building where something’s not quite right.

Dr. John Montague, Luke Sanderson, Eleanor Vance, and just Theodora make up our original cast. They are supported by Mr. and Mrs. Dudley (the house caretakers) and later by Dr. Montague’s wife with her friend Arthur.

As the story progresses, the house itself begins to assume a kind of malignant consciousness. The old estate’s nebulous but unmistakably fell intent is then carried out through the spirits and psychic disturbances which serve as an extension of its will. The main characters, especially Nel (Eleanor), are helplessly caught in the crossfire.

There are creaky hallways, closing doors, shuttered windows, unsettling angles, creepy statues, spooky towers, ill-advised walks alone, and plenty of things that literally go bump in the night. Tensions (including semi-romantic ones) between characters mount until a breaking point is reached and the climax ensues.

If this all sounds trite, unremarkable, and overdone, it’s only because Hill House is where much of it started. What now seems like a bundle of cliches was heavily derived from what was already within the dark covers of Shirley Jackson’s book.

While reading The Haunting of Hill House, it’s impossible not to be struck with how many horror projects are undeniably influenced by it. The Shining, Poltergeist, The Conjuring, Scooby- Doo, Monster House, and an infinity of other haunted house stories, games, movies, and TV shows are all its eerie offspring. The more you think about it, the more you’ll see.

Some things will look outright copied or stolen.

But while its importance, influence, and impact are all beyond doubt, there are two questions which remain.

Is it scary? Is it good?

Eleanor rolls her eyes as she is possessed by Hill House

First, it’s worth noting that while everything grows old, horror is especially subject to aging poorly. No other genre suffers as heavily from losing shock value and ever-increasing fear thresholds.

Movies that were once rated R and scary to the core would now barely qualify as PG-13 and wouldn’t scare a teen of any age. I’ve written before about how even horror classics like Poe can lose their edge, and Hill House is another example.

The sad reality is that The Haunting of Hill House isn’t even remotely scary. Some of that is obviously the 60 years since its release, but some of it isn’t. I’ve read plenty of old horror stories, many far older than Hill House, and lots of them are much sharper after far longer periods of time.

The book is a major slow burn, which as a huge fan of H.P. Lovecraft, I don’t mind at all. The problem is that for a slow burn to work, the payoff has to actually be worth it. The longer the burn, the bigger the payoff needs to be.

At 231 total pages, and the real story not starting until about halfway through, Hill House would need a VERY explosive payoff indeed.

Again, to be blunt, it does not deliver. Not even close.

Short story writers like Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, Algernon Blackwood, and Lord Dunsany do everything Hill House does (and sometimes more) in FAR shorter periods of time.

And while the story is often praised for its characters and the relationships between them, the truth is that they are only remarkable because they are within the pages of a horror story. In literally any other genre, they would only be considered passable at best. But since Hill House is not actually scary (even for my wife, who is frightened by the Draugr in Skyrim), it feels hard to praise even the characters.

The novel has other problems too. Problems that have nothing to do with horror and everything to do with literary skill.

Despite the fact that Hill House has undeniably one of the best first lines (and pages) to ANY book, and despite the decadently delicious and deeply descriptive style of writing, much of the other literary elements are what might be called malnourished.

For example, basic story points like dialogue and scene transitions are often befuddlingly hard to figure out. Like a bad movie, the book has dozens and dozens of hard cuts between places, people, and conversations without the benefit of being able to actually see what’s happening.

It’s often very hard to know who’s talking half the time, a problem that only gets worse as the book goes on, since no attributions are given before or after a set of quotation marks an infuriating number of times.

Which characters perspective we are looking through at any given moment can also sometimes take a second (or a page) to figure out. Confusing and sometimes almost nonexistent descriptions of events had me reading the same line over and over to understand what the hell Shirley was talking about.

There is a very fine line and a very big difference between genuine surrealism and not making any sense. Hill House is not surreal. It isn’t inventive or avant garde or interesting to be confused. Mystery is the constructive withholding of information in such a way that the audience is able to create order from unknown. Confusion is not being given enough information to see that there is actually a method in the madness. Hill House isn’t mysterious.

And while true literary madness is fine for poetry, it isn’t for basic novels. Even when beautifully depicted and given a lushious setting.

This just makes it all feel even more like a missed opportunity when the two or three genuinely supernatural scenes are given minimalist and shockingly truncated descriptions. When they actually happen, they’re the best parts of the book. It’s just a shame that there’s so few of them and that they’re so bloody short. In over 200 pages, perhaps only 10 have any element of genuine haunting.

There’s a reason why the director of one of the book’s film adaptations thought it was actually a story about mental breakdown instead of ghostly possession. It took him an hour long convincing by the author herself to believe otherwise.

Which is why… the book doesn’t deserve its length. It should only be about 180 pages at most, and 150 would probably be better. Often I encountered whole chapters which could be completely removed and nothing would change.

Haunted House Repo.

Eleanor timidly steps through the nursery doors of Hill House

With all that said, is it possible to (pardon the pun) repossess Hill House in a supernatural or a realestate sense?

I think so.

But in order to make that happen you’re going to need a specific attitude. Much of my disappointment (though not all) stemmed from the fact that I walked in ready for something which would really spook me. I was braced for impact and wanted to be scared stiff.

If instead, I had come looking to appreciate a literary piece which practically created the modern haunted house story, I would have had no complaints. It would have even been fun.

Failing your willingness to do that, there are several adaptations of the story worth noting. Hill House has been the subject of two films and a television series. The films, both entitled The Haunting, were released in 1963 and 1999.

The 1999 version is so bad it was nominated as worst in five different categories at the Golden Raspberry Awards, and was only outcompeted by the now infamous Wild Wild West. But if you want to see the baffling choice to put Owen Wilson in a horror film with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Liam Neeson, here’s your chance.

The 1963 version however is completely serviceable for its time, although you’ll need the attitude I already mentioned to get much out of it now. Plenty of theaters back then offered viewers a $100 prize for anyone who could sit through a midnight showing without running off.  Still, the cinematography and angles are quite inventive and Eleanor’s inner dialogue is very faithful to the book.

The television series, called by the exact name of the novel, was released in 2018 as a Netflix original. While it makes relatively major changes to the characters and their relationships, the essential spirit of the story is widely considered faithful. The series did very well indeed, getting vastly positive reviews from both critics and audiences alike.

In the end, Hill House is worth your attention even if (like myself) you find it unworthy of your admiration.

Its historical value within the genre is well earned, and despite its luster having long since faded, the creative context it provides the reader is enough to justify it having a place on your shelf.


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  1. If you enjoyed my perspective here on Horror Obsessive, then please consider listening to my Podcast on a very different subject.

    I’m the host of Modernist Monastery, it’s about the connection between ancient philosophical or spiritual practices and modern scientific research. It’s also a show about how to apply that connection to your everyday life

  2. While I appreciate the focus on “horror” here, I think that the focus of this article is still too heavy on the book belonging in this genre. I do not think that the book belongs in any genre at all, “horror” or “mystery”, and that it is instead, if anything, a gothic fairy-tale. If anything this book is “haunting” instead of “scary” in the “horror” sense.

    For me, the best parts of the book are the journey to Hill House, and the gradual distancing of the other characters from Eleanor, as she begins to be left out and eventually isolated from everyone else. I found those moments very much relatable and very devastating, more so than any of the more traditional “horror” moments. I don’t believe it is “madness”, rather the effects of loneliness and of being ostracised, the effects of never being able to belong, and what happens when you accept that fact.

    While I do agree that the supernatural components are “truncated” and can be seen as clunky, my view is that it creates echoes and vibrations, that make everything else seem more off and uncanny. It is frustrating that we don’t get the full story behind the scares, but “not being given enough information to see that there is actually a method in the madness” is to me why the book is unsettling. Something seems off, but you can’t put your finger on it, or on any method. It’s like an unsolved cold case or a strange dream, where there is no one explanation that makes complete sense. It draws people in.

    In the end, I think the difference in our views of the novel stems from what we were expecting to get out of it, and also how willing we are to look into the ambiguities, and try to find an explanation where there might not be one.

    Note: regarding the “the truth is that [the characters] are only remarkable because they are within the pages of a horror story. In literally any other genre, they would only be considered passable at best.” part: I relate very strongly to the main character in this novel, more than any other novel. She struggles to find empathy and belonging, in a world depicted as largely unsympathetic and uncaring. I would genuinely love to hear of a novel, “horror” or otherwise, where a character faces similar struggles, which you find to have better characterisation.

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Written by Dean Delp

A content creator and editor by both passion and trade. Obsessed with the strange, interesting, intelligent and otherwise unusual. Podcaster, writer, filmmaker, narrator, and voice actor.

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