Would You Like a Haunting With That?

Not to be confused with the movies House on Haunted Hill (1959) or House on Haunted Hill (1999).  However, if you want to watch a film version, there is The Haunting (1963) and The Haunting (1999).  Now we just need someone to make a movie called House Haunting Hill and we'll never know what the hell is going on.

My first exposure to this story was, sadly, the 1999 version of the Haunting.  It has about as much in common with the original story as the House on Haunted Hill does; which is to say that both involve a) people and b) a haunted house.  So, my short review of 1999's the Haunting is: don't bother.  That being said, the 1959 House on Haunted Hill is a perfectly serviceable haunted house picture; I'd recommend it.

But enough yammering about confusingly named properties that are all to similar to each other in title if not in content.  We're here to talk about Shirley Jackson's book!  Briefly?  It's fantastic.

In a way, reading the novel makes the 1999 remake all the more offensive.  The 1999 version completely and utterly missed the point of the novel.  It missed the creeping dread.  The uncertainty of anything supernatural actually going on.  It missed pretty much everything, in exchange for cranking out yet another overtly supernatural "horror" movie.  Sadly, it failed even in that attempt.  There's no horror, no suspense, no dread; just jump scares and horrible computer graphics.

Okay, I promise I'm done talking about the stupid movie now.

For those not familiar, The Haunting of Hill House, it is, on the surface, a weird little tale of people investigating a supposedly haunted house.  However, like many of Shirley Jackson's works, there's a lot more going on that what we see at the surface.

Despite being relatively short, only two hundred pages or so, it is a powerful work that takes its time, slowly developing the situation.  Slowly tweaking perceptions.  Slowly changing reality.  Slowly drawing the reader in.

Before hitting you right in the forehead with a hammer.

This book is kind of an odd duck.  At times, I was forced to stop and back up to reread sections, because it felt like either I had skipped a page, or that reality had shifted by a few degrees.  Since the story is mostly told from the perspective of one character, the strange shifts make sense.  It's almost like Elenore is infected by a contagious madness that is slowly seeping into our supposedly impartial third-person narrator.  Honestly, it's quite well done, and the overall effect is rather unnerving.

Like all good terror stories, we're left with questions.  Not just about what happens to the other people at the house, but of the house itself.  And what is actually going on.  Was Hill House actually haunted, or was it just a matter of a damaged and disturbed young woman?  If it's an actual haunting, why did it act the way it did?  Why did it pick on just one person?  Was it satisfied with the conclusion?  If it wasn't an actual haunting, how do you explain so many things that everyone saw?

Or was poor Elenore so disconnected from reality that none of this happened?  Apparently, the people behind the 1963 version of the film thought that was the case and actually talked to Shirley Jackson about it.  Jackson maintains that it's about the supernatural.  And while the author's intent is important, there is something to be said that the reader's interpretation is just as important, to that reader.  Personally, I think it's a mixture.  Or rather, that the "presence" in the house is somewhat limited in what it can do -- it actually feels like a poltergeist, what with the banging on pipes and closing doors and so on -- but it is perfectly capable of pushing a woman already on the edge over the brink.

But even with all that, we still don't know much at all.  Why was the house evil, or in the book's words, "not sane"?  What was it about the place that brought out the worst in people?  What evil lurked there, ready to tear into peoples' minds?  The book makes mention of the angles of the walls all being wrong:

It had an unbelievably faulty design which left it chillingly wrong in all its dimensions, so that the walls seemed always in one direction a fraction longer than the eye could endure, and in another direction a fraction less than the barest possible tolerable length;
 Of course, the Lovecraft fan on me latched on to this description (and other mentions of things being subtly wrong).  It spent my mind spinning about things being out of place and designed incorrectly (either intentionally or accidentally).  Like the skyscraper in Ghostbusters.  It's almost a form of sympathetic magic being done through architecture.  Like the subtle wrongness was the source of madness, and the madness fed the wrongness, until it all spiraled into oblivion.  An Ouroboros of insanity.

This is a very good story, and there's reason that it's a standard of the genre.  It is not, however, anywhere near as good as We Have Always Lived In The Castle.  Then again, there's a reason why one is considered a great novel and the other is considered her crowning achievement and masterpiece.  It would be nice if more of Jackson's stories made it to reading lists.  The Lottery is pretty standard, and continues to freak out students to this day, but it would be nice if that led people to explore more of what she's written.  You want a (somewhat) modern female author to recommend?  Give them Shirley Jackson's name.  She was a master at her craft, and even though I'm trying to scale back book purchases (and read the ones I've got), I just know that eventually I'll be buying and reading everything she produced.

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