Houses gather a reputation over time; conceived and built to the design of the domineering eccentric Hugh Crain as a home for his family, Hill House was never to be a happy place, his first wife and mother to his children killed as she approached the house for the first time, his second wife dying in a mysterious fall, his third wife taken by consumption and then he himself, leaving two daughters who squabbled bitterly with accusations and lawsuits, the eventual inheritor of the house dying a lonely old spinster, her companion later found hanged in the library turret.
People attain a reputation; Eleanor Vance, unhappy all her adult life, nursed her mother whom she came to hate for eleven years until her death for which she blames herself: “It was going to happen sooner or later, but of course no matter when it happened it was going to be my fault.” Now aged thirty-two, she lives with her older sister and brother-in-law and their daughter, holding fast to the belief that “someday, something would happen” to affirm that she has paid her dues and deserves more, that life has not been passed her over, cast her aside.
That happens in the form of an invitation to Doctor John Montague to spend time at Hill House to take part in an investigation of the alleged paranormal phenomena which have led to the family who inherited the house being unable to live in it nor to lease it out, anyone who has attempted to stay fleeing within days and refusing to discuss their reasons. Eleanor having been the focus of a poltergeist incident as a child, that incident brought her to the attention of Doctor Montague as a person of interest, and joining them are Theodora, allegedly psychic, and Luke Sanderson, representing the interests of the family.
Books establish a reputation, and sometimes it is deserved; “Hill House… had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more,” and first published in 1959 Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has for sixty years been regarded as one of the finest haunted house stories of all time, the horrors not only in the distorted rooms and corridors of the isolated mansion shrouded by trees and hills which seem as though they might at any moment fall down on the house but in the passages of Eleanor’s troubled mind, punishing herself for sins only she perceives.
Echoing phrases to calm herself as though reciting mantras, hoping to find friendship, purpose and validation of her empty life, her journey to Hill House in the car which she has taken from her sister without permission is a fantasy of stone lions and poisonous orchards concealing hidden spaces, enchantments waiting to be broken, anything better than reality; hoping to find “a devilishly handsome smuggler” or be rewarded with “a cup of stars,” instead she is greeted by Dudley the caretaker, serving as gatekeeper and harbinger, and Mrs Dudley, formidable and acidic housekeeper.
Seeing Hill House for the first time, more than the first Mrs Crain ever managed, Eleanor’s reaction is immediate: “Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.” Yet with nowhere else to go she enters and unpacks her few possessions; the house engulfing her, she willingly allows it to do so, needing to belong somewhere: “I am the fourth person in this room,” she thinks as she sits in the parlour with Montague, Luke and Theo, warming herself by the fire that first evening; “I belong.”
As they explore the house and the grounds they create personas as though playing a game, all of them with possibly the exception of Montague, but Eleanor feels that her masquerade is easily seen through, particularly by the perceptive and flighty Theo, coming to believe that the others are dishonest in the intentions they express to her even though she is aware that she herself judges them and chides herself for unspoken cruelties she thinks, and hanging over all is the shadow of the labyrinth that is the house, watching her, waiting for her moment of weakness or desperation.
What is worse; to be in a haunted house, or to be haunted within oneself? Or is it worse still to be tormented, crying out for understanding and sympathy and to find that the only response comes from the restless spirits of a cruel house filled with eighty years of sadness seeping from its stone and carved wooden panels who perhaps see a similar soul? Accused of attention seeking when she sees herself as the outsider and a victim of the house’s attacks, Eleanor confesses “I’ve never been wanted anywhere.” Rejected by the others, is Hill House all she has left?
A celebrated novelist and writer of short stories, The Lottery having gained notoriety when it was published in the New Yorker in 1948, Shirley Jackson also wrote two humorous volumes of autobiography inspired by her life as a wife and mother to three (soon to be four) young children, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, capable of making the ordinary seem vibrant and the mundane seem sinister, the petty barbs and jealousies which wound Eleanor are also evident in the endemic hatred of sisters Mary Katherine and Constance Blackwood by the small-minded people of the town in Jackson’s following novel, 1962’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
The Haunting of Hill House filmed by director Robert Wise as The Haunting starring I Am a Camera’s Julie Harris, Innocents in Paris’ Claire Bloom, Operation Crossbow’s Richard Johnson and Twin Peaks’ Russ Tamblyn, it is a faithful and inventive adaptation which captures the sense of disorientation of the house which magnifies Eleanor’s paranoia and isolation, while the classic novel itself has recently been republished in a luxurious new edition by the Folio Society, introduced by Joyce Carol Oates and illustrated by Angie Hoffmeister in delicate watercolours which capture the repressive atmosphere of Hill House and the inescapable nightmares within.