Many readers know of Shirley Jackson without really knowing her, as her short story, “The Lottery,” is used extensively in middle and high school language arts classes (see note for more on “Lottery”). The Haunting of Hill House is one of her few novels. Despite being written in 1959, Shirley Jackson writes a thoroughly modern thriller in both subject and tone. In fact, the story seems so contemporary that reminders of the time (a mention of women being thrilled at driving or wearing “slacks”) seem to jolt us back to the 1950’s.
The story opens with our young heroine, Eleanor Vance, finally taking charge of her life and leaving behind a diminished existence as the spinster sister. She heads out of the city seeking fortune and adventure in a rural village. At the ill-rumored country home, Hill House, she will take up residence and provide administrative support for a paranormal sciences study. The thrill Eleanor feels as she flees her past and heads out — over the bucolic hills and through farm towns — slowly starts to fade as she draws nearer to the Hill House. She feels compelled to stop in the last village on her route, knowing Hillsdale offers her “last chance” to turn back. Despite a chilly reception from the townies and her own growing unease, Eleanor leaves the village for the Hill House.
Immediately upon arriving at the house – padlocked, chained, and guarded by a “malicious” caretaker – she begins to understand that her decision to travel there might be unwise. From first glance, the house appears “vile, diseased” and she is compelled by a “sick voice in her head to get away, get far away.” But she presses on, dismissing her fear as silliness, and readers are simultaneously worried for her and thankful that she will continue on with her story so we can see where it leads us all.
Eleanor meets the other (temporary) inhabitants of the house – the caretaker and housekeeper, the Dudleys; Theodora, another aide; Luke, the young man set to inherit Hill House; and the study’s leader, Dr. Montague — and the “work” they are charged with carrying out is explained. The house is haunted, Doctor Montague explains, but no one who has ever lived there can explain what is exactly to be feared from the house…once they arrived the previous owners only admit to an immediate, desperate need to leave. With great candor, the doctor admits that the task of documenting the haunting at Hill House will be terrifying and will not leave them unscarred. “The house is evil itself. It has enchained and destroyed its people and their lives,” he tells them and offers them a chance to leave.
At first, the frightening task exhilarates the characters, and they find themselves under a spell of excitement as they explore the secrets the house hides. Before long, fear has begun to infect the minds of the characters; they grow suspicious of one another and fearful for their sanity.
It seems that the women of the book are most susceptible to the effects of Hill House. As the story unfolds, we learn that all of the women who have called the house home have met a sad or violent end. Living there has led women to injury, madness, suicide, or extreme cruelty (especially toward other women). Inside the house, women’s insecurities, fears, and their need to be loved becomes their downfall. The more the women long to be included and accepted, the more ghosts of the house seem to prey upon them. Eleanor – the most vulnerable of the female characters – is the most affected by the house, but her female counterparts are also drawn into suspicion and become quick to blame each other for strange occurrences. Perhaps Jackson is making a feminist commentary on the ways in which women’s need to please make us more likely to be victimized, that by ignoring our instincts and turning on one another we find ourselves alone and vulnerable to being terrorized.
NOTE: Shirley Jackson’s famous 1948 short story, “The Lottery,” ran in the June 1948 New Yorker Magazine Fiction Section. A full copy can be found in Google Open Document form here: