Good Enough to Inspire Others to Greatness: ‘The Haunting of Hillhouse’

Wow, where has October gone?

It’s already the 21st, which means Halloween is right around the corner, and I haven’t done a single spooky thing on this blog.

How dare I?

Well, what better way to get into the spirit of the holiday, than to review an old classic.

Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hillhouse hardly needs an introduction. Published in 1959, this story is thought to be one of the best haunted house stories ever written. It was a National Book award finalist back 1960 and Steven King wrote about its main character that:

“… Eleanor Vance is surely the finest character to come out of this new American gothic tradition”.

King S, Danse Macabre, pg 268. 1981

It’s been made into two movies, a play, a Netflix mini series, and was recently (ish) alluded to in an author’s note as a sort of (anti) inspiration for a 2021 Hugo nominated short story, Open House on Haunted Hill by John Wiswell.

Clearly, there is something special about Hill House.

With accolades like that, it seemed to me that this book should have been a slam dunk for me in terms of enjoyment; however, I was left stunned while reading this book, by just how much I WASN’T enjoying it.


Yes, you read that correctly. I DIDN’T enjoy Haunting of Hill House.

Why though?

In some respects, I believe my dislike for this novel may actually stem from all the hype it has received over the years. Perhaps there is no real novel that can live up to the concept of this novel that is currently circulating the literary zeitgeist. Perhaps I was set up for disappointment (TIL there is a name for this feeling called Hype Backlash).

Perhaps it may be that times have changed, and what was impressive in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s no longer impresses us. Or maybe the tropes and techniques pioneered in this novel are so influential that now they are completely pervasive, and they seem commonplace and trite to modern readers (the whole Seinfeld is UnFunny thing).

Or perhaps Jackson was just an inconsistent wordsmith . . .

The Writing Excuses Podcast had an entire episode devoted to the craft of just the opening lines of Haunting of Hillhouse. Indeed it is quite an opening:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Jackson S, The Haunting of Hill House, pg 1. 1959.

I won’t disagree with anything the writers on the podcast said, that is one hell of an opening. It really brings you into the world of the story, and sets up your expectations for the rest of the story, not only in terms of what will happen throughout, but also for the level of craftmanship and precision dedicated to the prose.

And then we have:

“I should have turned back at the gate, Eleanor thought. The house had caught her with an atavistic turn in the pit of the stomach, and she looked along the lines of its roofs, fruitlessly endeavoring to locate the badness, whatever dwelt there; her hands turned nervously cold so that she fumbled, trying to take out a cigarette, and beyond everything else she was afraid, listening to the sick voice inside her which whispered, Get away from here, get away.”

Jackson S, The Haunting of Hill House, pg 24. 1959.

I get hung up on a few things in this passage. The first is the use of “the badness”. I can kind of see that perhaps it is a kind of childish or simple term (maybe a bit primal?); perhaps even a term that would come immediately to mind when someone was actually afraid and didn’t have the proper words to express that feeling, but it still just feels like Jackson didn’t have the proper way to express a feeling of fear.

The next thing that stuck out was “nervously cold”. People get nervous, and hands can be cold. I don’t think hands can get nervously cold. Personally simply stating that her hands felt cold and then showing Eleanor fumbling for the cigarettes, we get the idea that she is nervous.

This same telling vs showing happens again (and throughout the book), when we’re told “…beyond everything else, she was afraid.” Again, seeing Eleanor’s actions we can guess that she is afraid.

In all, these types of descriptions were not too terrible, but after the expectations set by the opening line (and all the study of it), they did stand out to me and often took me out of the action of the story.

I had a few more complaints, but unfortunately I did not have enough time to write down the quotes I wanted to use as evidence (plus I have probably already hurled enough insult at a classic for one day), so I won’t be able to go into them here, but suffice to say, written in another time or not, I felt most of the dialogue in Hill House was nearly incomprehensible.

What I felt Hill House got right, was the environment as antagonist trope. This house is deeply uncanny to experience (as we saw above) from the very first line.

Did it Live Up to the Hype?

For me, no. The Haunting of Hill House is certainly an interesting book to research and learn about (and for writers perhaps to study), and it certainly brought us forward in terms of ‘Place as Antagonist’.

However, for me, the actual text itself often seemed to pale in comparison to the lofty accolades proclaimed by genuinely amazing writers. I still have much to learn (and read) about the horror genre and haunted house sub-genre specifically, but I think in many ways, this was much like (IMHO) some of the earliest genre fiction (detective, sci-fi, and superhero pulps), something that was just good enough to inspire others to greatness.

Have any of you all read this one? What did you think? Was I too harsh? Please let me know in the comments. I’m curious to hear your thoughts!


3 thoughts on “Good Enough to Inspire Others to Greatness: ‘The Haunting of Hillhouse’

  1. Oh nooo! I’ve only read this book once but I consider it one of my favourites. Haha, but I forgive you, as my favourite part of the story was also ‘the environment as antagonist trope’. I have gone back to look at my review (I remember I wrote a very long one but don’t remember much of what I said…) and apparently I quite liked the writing style and thought it helped bring the terror elements to life. I can see how it might not be to your taste, though!

    • This is what makes books so interesting to share and talk about! Different people like different things. I’ll admit that I may have been expecting too much because of all the hype this book has received.
      Also, I’m starting to think I have a bit of a bias against “the classics” hahah. But yea, there was a lot here that just didn’t do it for me.

      Have you watched the netflix series? Of the 3 that director has done (HoHH, Bly Manor, and Midnight Mass), Haunting of Hillhouse was my favorite. So . . . apparently I like something in there somewhere haha

      • I have not watched it. Once I realized it departed significantly from the book, I lost interest. Also, I am a baby when it comes to horror on screen, haha, so I don’t watch the genre in general anyway! 😛 Was there anything in the show, that was also in the book, that you liked?

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