Reading Corner | The Haunting of Hill House
In which I understand why “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson is considered one of the best ghost stories of the 20th Century.
I picked up this book after I watched both the 1999 film “The Haunting” and the more recent Netflix TV adaptation, and:
- Failed to imagine how the two screen adaptations could be even connected.
- Based on what I saw in the TV adaptation, I wanted to know how important Nell's isolation was in the original book.
- As a skeptic, found interesting how the book was inspired by the story of a real-life “paranormal investigation”, of which the author noticed the flaws.
The plot of “The Haunting of Hill House” is simple, but has become a blueprint for most novels and stories about haunted houses: Dr. John Montague, a paranormal investigator, invites four people into Hill House, a house that is said to be haunted, to conduct an experiment that would allow him to verify how different people experience the “haunting”.
Getting into this novel took me a while at first: after coming from “Let the right one in”, the prose of “The Haunting of Hill House”, which fits perfectly the Gothic Novel genre, felt really “purple”. Also, I didn't immediately connect with Eleanor, the main character, because I had to get to know her to figure out why she would think and express herself a certain way. The moment it “clicked”, however, I could not put down this book at all: the choice of language is very deliberate and Eleanor, very much like Humbert, is a perfectly written unreliable narrator.
On my first point, how the two most recent screen adaptations could actually be even related, I would say that they felt so disconnected from each other because both missed the mark spectacularly. The 1999 film has nothing of the psychological horror and sense of oppression and anxiety the book has: the plot is very similar, but stripped of these elements, it just turns into a very average, not particularly scary, horror movie. The one thing the movie didn't fail to portray is the character of Theo, thanks to the flamboyant charisma of Catherine Z Jones. The Netflix drama, on the other hand, got the psychological sides right at first, but it gets further away from the novel's intent and key themes as it continues. By the end of it, it turns into something completely different from the source.
On my second point, I was pleased to realise that Nell's isolation is the central point of the novel (I found out later this is largely autobiographical), to the point where, by the end of the novel, the reader doubts that there was even any actual ghost haunting the house. In “The Haunting of Hill House”, the haunting isn't inside the house itself, but it happens inside the characters' minds. And, as it happens with the best horror works, we never get to actually see the monster.
One tool the author uses to plant on the reader the seeds of doubt that there even is a ghost at all in the house is the way she makes sure to describe the experiment as clearly flawed and non-scientific. Dr. John Montague, the character who sets the plot in motion, considers himself a skeptic and an investigator of the supernatural, but every single step he takes to set up the experiment goes against the criteria of what could be considered a truly scientific practice:
- He hand-picks the subjects of his study arbitrarily, choosing someone with a past that would be compatible with a certain result.
- He stays in the house for the experiment and becomes the main point of reference for the subjects, influencing their thoughts and rendering the experiment invalid.
- He does not have a way of collecting data other than asking his subjects to write some notes, without even giving them guidelines on how to do so.
The analysis of the failed paranormal investigation is actually really interesting from a skeptic's point of view, as it shows very well how these investigations are usually flawed and turn out giving false-positive results.
Back to the screen adaptations, one element that both picked up on is how queer the two female characters read: the author never explicitly mentions Theo's and Nell's sexuality, as she couldn't have done it so easily back in 1959 when the book was published (it would become the only element the critics would pick up), but Theo's queerness seems quite clear, and so is Nell's attraction to her.
This is one of those books that just stay with you after you have read them: multi-layered, deep, masterfully written.
Next on my list:
- How to talk to girls at parties, by Neil Gaiman