The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Maybe I should wait to review this book, as I've just finished and I'm not yet sure what to make of it. But I'll try to write something comprehensible.
First of all, I was told this was the quintessential haunted house book, and I hadn't read any horror fiction for a while, so I thought I'd check it out. Plus, it's a bit of a genre-classic. I read the introduction to this book, which may have been a mistake. It gave away the ending, and also gave a lot of spoilers and analysis that I probably shouldn't have thought about until after the book. I really wish they'd made it an afterward instead of a foreward.
So, let me try to review the book as I would have if I hadn't read the intro.
I enjoyed this book a lot. The protagonist, Eleanor, was very simple and fanciful, almost like a child. She never really grew up, and we assume this is due to her long imprisonment as the caretakeer of her mother. She never grew up or even lived, but spent most of her adult life caring for her mother. When her mother dies, she is left with a sister she doesn't like (who is not developed, but what we see of her through Eleanor's eyes is not a flattering picture). Eleanor is invited to Hill House and goes there, although we're not really sure why. She repeatedly says "journeys end in lovers meeting" so we have to assume she's looking for a bit of human contact or even love.
What she finds is, well...a haunted house. At first she, like the others, feels the evil of the house and fears it. We're never really sure if the house is haunted, or who it's haunted by, but we assume it's a family who previously lived in the house.
Somewhere along the way I came to realize that Eleanor was not a reliable narrator. It's hard to separate from the first-person narrative--we're inside Eleanor's mind, so we want to believe what she believes. At one point I got paranoid that the others were playing tricks on her because she thinks they are. Shirley Jackson does a great job drawing the reader into Eleanor's mind and not letting go. I began to think she was going crazy, and eventually she really seems to lose it. But it doesn't seem like it while reading, because we are inside the crazy person's head.
Eleanor at first fits in, but eventually she begins to separate herself (or the house does?) by her constant need for attention. She claims that the others (or Theo, in particular) only want attention all the time, to be center stage. While in fact it is Eleanor who always wants to be the center of attention, although we only know this through her actions, as she herself never consciously craves or seeks attention.
Her relationships are painted in a vague, shadowy way, which leaves the reader to guess what happens. Is she in love with Theo? Is Theo a lesbian, or just friendly? And I still am not sure if Eleanor had sex with Luke, although I believe she did. Whether Jackson didn't want to be explicit in saying this, or if she wanted us to have to guess, I'm not sure. I also thought that Theo and Luke had a short affair, although that was also left unsaid. Eleanor really seemed to fall apart after her hour spent with Luke doing whatever, so I am assuming they had a brief encounter and then, since he's described as a 'cad' and a 'scoundrel' afterwards, that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Theo seems jealous about this, but she never admits it to Eleanor. Instead, she goes after Luke herself (we think, but maybe it's only Eleanor's jealousy?). Eleanor falls apart then, losing her friend and whatever Luke was to her. She never comes out and says it, but we guess from the risk Luke takes to save her that it's his guilt driving him.
The house seems to possess Eleanor, rather than a ghost or spirit. It absorbs her, and I'd have thought it preyed on her because she was the weak one, living half the time in her fantasy world. She was most impressionable, so the entity that possessed the house went for her. Then she sacrifices herself to it, so to speak, so she can remain forever a part of the house. Or that's how I would have read it if I'd never read the introduction. After reading it, I guess I'm supposed to think that it was actually Eleanor and not a ghost haunting the house. That she conjured all the events from her subconscious or psychic abilities, drawing attention to herself with the messages from 'ghosts,' ruining the possessions of someone who angered her. But still I wondered if the house wasn't trying to gain her trust so that she would surrender to it. Although I know I'm supposed to believe Eleanor created all the phenomena in the house, I'm still not sure I believe it. I still suspect that the house engulfed and infiltrated her to drive her mad so that she'd join whatever spirit walked there alone.
I know I usually give less summary in reviews, but that's my review of this. It was a great book, although confusing, and I will be thinking about it for a while and trying to figure it out. The book is very well-written, the dialogue is snappy, witty, and surprising. I did think that they should have been nicer to Eleanor and explained things better when they sent her away. But overall, I'd recommend this book to anyone who likes to have a deep thought about literature and not just read it and forget it. If you like thought-provoking, ambiguous books, this one's for you.
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