The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (Book Review)

The Haunting of Hill HouseThe Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The only reason I didn’t enjoy this book more than I did is that I read it all wrong.

Bookshelves: classic, creepy-horror-stuff, ghost-story, heebie-jeebies, kafkaesque, literature-with-a-capital-l, supernatural, this-is-the-stuff-right-here, best-opening-sentence, metaphysics

Let’s start with Jackson’s writing, her character development, and sense of place, and intricate tapestry of timing and nuance and madness. Genius. She grabbed me with her opening sentence, one of the best I have ever read: No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. This is now in my Top Three Best Openers Ever. (The other two spots are held by Gabriel García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude* and Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.**)

This novel is widely credited as the creepiest of all ghost stories ever and as the progenitor of an entire genre. One thing I did wrong was to wait so long to read it. Over the course of my life I’ve read so many others that were clearly influenced by this masterwork that they stole Jackson’s oomph. Had I read this back in the day, it would have scared the shit out of me. It’s not gory, which I can’t stand, but spooky, which I love, full of the kind of creepiness seen in the movie Paranormal Activity, which my husband and I drove 120 miles round trip to see in theaters and which left me clutching his arm and looking over my shoulder all the way home. (Caveat: I loved that movie right up until the cheesey ending, which pissed me off.)

The house! I mean, the house! I suspect this is what Danielewski was trying to pull off with House of Leaves, which failed for me because it tried too hard and only made itself inaccessible. Remember the K.I.S.S. rule: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Many scholars see allegory in this work and I’m not saying it’s not there, but if you’re not into standing around at cocktail parties, holding your drink with your pinkie sticking out while you discuss the symbolism of frustrated lesbian love or whatever other highbrow emblem might be here, the book is still a work of art. It succeeds without intellectualism, because it’s a damned good story.

My other failure was not making the most of ambience. It was eerie enough read in pieces on crowded, noisy commuter trains and during lunch breaks, granted. But to get the most out of this book, it should be read all in one sitting, curled in an armchair next to a window against which rain and wind are lashing, when the power has gone out and you are left with candle or oil lamp, on Halloween night. In my own defense, I tried. In mid-October I requested it from the library, from two libraries as a matter of fact, but it is so immensely popular that it did not become available until late January.

I would tend to give this four stars because it was excellent and I highly recommend it, although I doubt I’ll read it again. But for me not reading it right and its place as a spooky benchmark and that opening sentence, I’m bumping it up to five.

*Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

**It is the finest outhouse in the Dakotas. It has to be.

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Author: Deborah Lee

I like trees, dreaming, magic, books, paper, floating, dreaming, rhinos, rocks, stargazing, wine, dragonflies, trains, and silence to hear the world breathe.

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