It is a special satisfaction to finally read a book that has been on your list for as long as you can remember. It’s an even special-er satisfaction when that book lives up to your expectations, as was the case with The Haunting of Hill House. However, now I am faced with the challenge of writing about a book that has been extensively written about by writers far more suited to the challenge than I am (Joyce Carol Oates, Laura Miller, Carmen Maria Machado, Neil Gaiman, etc). I’m going to give it a crack nonetheless, but will keep it brief and to the point.
Hill House is unquestionably a haunted house book, which will be a convenient excuse for many people who claim to be disinterested or have an aversion to the supernatural to turn up their noses. But what makes the book so deeply disturbing is the disorientation that comes from experiencing the ghostly happenings that make you question what you are seeing (with your reader’s eye) from the perspective of a character who has proven herself to be unreliable in how she perceives her surroundings. Eleanor has an active imagination that at first seems harmless enough, she has lived a sad and lonely life caring for her invalid mother, and it seems only natural that she has the tendency to invent excitement. But her imagination shifts into a more distressing form as Hill House psychologically terrorizes its inhabitants.
Jackson doesn’t go the cheap route of allowing us to suspect that all the sinister occurrences within Hill House are simply the vengeful eruptions of Eleanor’s mind in response to the antagonisms of her fellow guests, especially Theodora. No, we know the occurrences are happening outside of Eleanor’s mind because we witness her terrorized alongside Theodora by phantom poundings and chilling whispers. Eleanor and Theodora are never more humane to each other than when trapped in a room together consumer by fear.
By avoiding allowing her readers to cling to the cliche of “it’s all in her head,” which may not have been as pervasive of a cop-out in 1959 as it is in 2019, Jackson is able to twist and manipulate our experience of the story alongside Eleanor. The haunting of Hill House is real, but where the house’s hauntings end and the dissolving of Eleanor’s mental state begins is the true terror of the story.