Today’s installment of Spring Break Shorty Story Recommendations is actually not a short story, but rather a novella or short novel, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. My copy is the 1984 Penguin Books edition, which runs at about 246 pages of text. That seems like standard novel length, but the print is a bit large, and while there are distinct chapters, the book feels like a very long short story or a shorter novel.
Nevertheless, it’s my blog and I have decided to feature this chilling novella in this year’s Spring Break Short Story Recommendations. It is a classic of the haunted house genre, and is a powerfully psychological tale.
The strength of The Haunting of Hill House lies in its characters, the chief being our heroine, Eleanor, or “Nell.” Nell is an uncertain and passive mouse, having spent over a decade slaving under an overbearing and bedridden mother. Having sacrificed her twenties to caring for a domineering and unsympathetic woman, Nell finally gets to live her own life.
The opportunity to do so comes in the form of a letter from Dr. Montague, a researcher into the paranormal who hopes to bring together other people who have experienced unusual phenomena. In addition to Nell and the doctor are Luke, the heir to Hill House, and Theodora, a chatty socialite with a penchant for extra-sensory perception. The quartet are waited upon by the dour Mrs. Dudley, an unpleasant woman but incredible cook, and her even more unpleasant Mr. Dudley, who basically tries to scare away the guests before letting them onto the grounds of Hill House. About two-thirds of the way through, Dr. Montague’s insufferable Spiritualist wife and her rough ‘n’ ready companion Arthur show up and add to the chaos.
The house itself is another character, as Jackson indicates throughout the book. The characters frequently speculate that Hill House might very well be influencing or interacting with them, and Eleanor in particular feels that the house is drawing her into it. The house manifests several spooky occurrences: violently slamming and shaking doors; strong smelling blood on the walls; Eleanor’s name in chalk; an exceptionally frigid cold spot; a weird nursery. The entire house, too, is built to be slightly out of proportion, so that rooms are almost imperceptibly crooked, to the point that the naked eye can’t see the odd angles and dimensions, but the body can perceive that everything is off.
Much of the chills in The Haunting of Hill House come from the effect the house as on its occupants, and the often cutting interplay between them. Nell comes to believe that the house has been waiting for her, that it is her house, that she is happy there, even amid the terrifying occurrences. Theodora is both a friend and an antagonist to Nell, both supporting her and comforting her when they are in the midst of various hauntings, but also dismissing her cruelly, making cutting remarks about Nell and Nell’s shyness and hysteria. Luke, the aloof playboy, seems to flirt outrageously with Theodora, and the two at times seem to be chatting just to torment Eleanor, who is constantly second-guessing herself, and perceiving slights that are not always there.
The Haunting of Hill House is a slow burn. The first haunted activity does not really start until after the hundredth page or so, which is telling: this story is not just about the house, but about the people. Jackson takes her time developing each character, but especially Nell. The long opening of the book gives the details of Nell “stealing” the car she and her boorish sister co-own, and explores her internal reactions to the places she stops along the way. The novel starts out as a fun, light-hearted adventure for Nell, who has the whole of her existence before her: she daydreams about living in a little house she spots along the way, polishing its twin stone lions every evening and enjoying the cool night air. She witnesses a family enjoying a meal at a little diner by a tumbling stream, and the little girl insisting that she drink her milk from her “cup of stars,” which becomes a common refrain in Nell’s mind.
Nell also repeats the lines from a poem or song: “Journeys end in lovers meeting.” Nell repeats this line to herself like a mantra, and it perhaps becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: her journey ends in “meeting” Hill House, with which she soon develops a strong bond.
The novel feels like the inhabitants are at Hill House for an extended period of time, but they are in fact there little more than a week by the end of the book. The sense of temporal uncertainty enhances the spookiness, and it is unclear how long the party has been there, or how many strange occurrences they have endured. They even seem used to the hauntings—especially the doors that close themselves constantly, even when propped open with heavy objects—and are actually giddy after surviving one harrowing night of door pounding and freezing cold.
But as much as the book is about Hill House, it is chiefly about Nell. Is Nell really feeling a connection to the house? Or is she so desperate for meaningful connections with the living, she instead seeks it from the dead—or whatever it is that “walked there”?
Every reader has probably known a Nell—a certain kind of aggressively shy, high-strung, mousey type that, for whatever reason—through circumstance or temperament, or both—found herself trapped in a life of timidity and uncertainty. What is the effect of placing such an individual in such a strange environment? The Haunting of Hill House gives one very chilling answer.
Nell is a sympathetic character, but not just because she is mousey and shy. She desperately wants something to happen to her, something to come of her life, and she craves human friendship and interaction. She begs Theodora to let her come and stay with her after their summer sojourn at Hill House, to which Theodora scoffs and refuses. There is a scene between Nell and Luke in which she is trying to feel out a possible romantic connection to him, and realizes he is little more than a handsome, noncommittal man-child. Even the fatherly Dr. Montague cannot give Eleanor what she needs, what she longs for so earnestly.
Add this one to your reading list. It is a classic of the genre, and inspired Stephen King’s Carrie, among other works. It has spawned numerous film and television adaptations, too, some good, some bad. Regardless of the merits of those adaptations, the source material is well worth your time, and is a quick read—one could read it over the course of a long weekend, easily.
Just remember that Hill House’s “walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floor were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” Mwahahahahahaha!
6 thoughts on “Spring Break Short Story Recommendation 2023: The Haunting of Hill House”
Excellent review of the book, Port. I read it years and years ago.
Additionally, you can rent the 1963 movie by the same name, The Haunting of Hill House, for $3.99 on YouTube. I loved the movie; I think it follows the book very closely.
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I am almost positive I have seen the movie before, but I honestly can’t remember! It’s on the “to-do” list for Spring Break now.
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It’s very effective. You’ll like how Nell was played.
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Thanks for the recommendation, Audre!
You have brought me back to a childhood favorite! I must now read it again. Thank you, Port!
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Enjoy! I’m surprised it took me so long to get around to reading this book.