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Book Review: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

11 Dec

I’d taken a break from audiobooks on my phone, but I’ve been in a push to finish more books than normal with the end of the year coming and being behind pace to meet my goal of 70 for the year. And so I’ve started doing these again, the perfect thing to do while baking Christmas cookies. I had read Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” when I was in high school but have never touched her other work before.


Cover Image from

Cover Image from

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

One of the women in my prompt group loves ghost stories and said that this is her all-time favorite ghost story. I’ve never been big on ghost stories before but I was intrigued and added it. This was almost my book club selection for October as well and might rear its head for next Halloween. Either way, I wanted to get the book in and what better time than Christmas!

Hill House has been haunted for years with residents dying and leaving out of fear for years. Dr. Montague studies the supernatural and gathers around him a team of people willing to spend the summer in Hill House to document the activity. Eleanor, a naive young girl who lives with her family, steals her sister’s car and drives out to Hill House where she meets Luke (relative to the owner), the doctor, and Theodora, a strong willed woman determined not to be scared. Their stay in the house is marred by strange writings on the walls and voices at night. Eleanor starts to lose control of herself and feels drawn to the house to a point where she is physically unable to leave.

There were parts of this book that gave me chills and did genuinely scare me. The scene where Eleanor is awakened in the middle of the night to no light and the voices of a man and child coming from Theodora’s room particularly scared me. I got a shiver when Eleanor awoke to find Theodora too far away to have held her hand. Unfortunately my husband chose that moment to slink quietly toward me and touch my shoulder. I screamed so loud I must have woke the whole building.

A friend of mine said this book had a good character arc in it and I agree that Eleanor’s change is well done, but I didn’t find the other characters anywhere near as intriguing and I felt the house was less of a character than it could have been.

The one character I found most memorable was Mrs. Montague, the doctor’s wife. She arrived late in the story and was very interested in using popular ghost hunting tools to explore the house, criticizing the others for their ignorance toward ‘proper’ ways of experiencing the supernatural. Comically, Mrs. Montague struggles to interact with the ghostly spirits that have been tormenting the other residents for a week. She uses a sort of Ouija board with some success, but is not troubled at night. I think Jackson was making a point about focusing less on trying to find an experience and just letting it happen. One can research the best ways to relax on vacation and bring all of the right tools along, but if one is concentrating too much on the proper amount of time to spend sunbathing, one is not going to enjoy the time on the beach. Trying too hard is a way of failing.

Are hauntings real? There are many accounts of unexplainable happenings and I’m sure there will be for years to come. Television shows are devoted to the very things Dr. Montague was exploring in this text (Paranormal State, Ghost Hunters International, etc.). But are they real? It all depends on what you want to believe. I think that if you believe, you’re more likely to experience something, but you can decide for yourself if that’s because you’re more willing to accept what’s happening or the spirits are more willing to communicate with you.

Writer’s Takeaway: Jackson’s topic makes defining fear necessary throughout the book. She did a wonderful job of varying the ways she described this emotion, but kept it prevalent throughout the book. Her description is commendable. I’m also of the impression that there are many times in a book where we as writers want to convey suspense or something truly frightening and a story such as this teaches that ordinary things such as a house can be terrifying. The door’s close on their own when one isn’t looking and a map is necessary to find the breakfast room? Creepy. I’m glad I read outside of my usual genre so I could see a great example of this.

Overall I wasn’t that impressed. Two out of five stars.

Until next time, Reader, write on.