Sunday, April 3, 2011

Review of "The Haunting of Hill House" by Shirley Jackson

"The Haunting of Hill House" is a novel by Shirley Jackson, published in 1959. It was adapted for film twice, in 1963 and 1999 under the name "The Haunting". It's been called a haunted house story. Right now I'm trying to think of a clever reason why it's not, but I'm drawing a blank. It's just different, okay???

The story follows what can only be called a neurotic loser, Eleanor Vance. Because her life is so lonely and friendless, she agrees to spend a summer in a reputedly haunted house. Dr. Montague, her host, has invited several people with experiences with the supernatural. Only Eleanor and a flakey beatnik named Theodora actually show. Also joining them is Luke, the future-owner of the house. Together, the four become fast friends and endure the ghostly tortures of the unhappy mansion in the name of science.

Here's what the book does very well: terror. (There's a difference between horror and terror. Terror is the dread that anticipates something scary happening while horror is the fright at the actual scary event.) The supernatural terrors of Hill House are not equalled in many books or movies. This terror is established in the book's opening paragraphs with the brilliant phrase, "...and whatever walked there, walked alone." When you identify with Eleanor, you feel acute dread at something invisible and malign looking for her. I recommend it as a how-to for other writers interested in terrorizing their audience. Remember, o ye horrorists, that the spook you describe is never as scary as the spook that an audience can imagine.

What makes this book different as well is the dialogue. The house's occupants speak in the style of sophisticated socialites. Eleanor, Theodora, Luke and the Doctor are all clearly intelligent and they are always playfulling razzing each other even in the midst of blackest terror. It adds a note of authenticity to the story that makes the moments of fear more surreal for the characters and more real for the audience.

Here's my only complaint with the book. Eleanor. She sucks. The story is told from her perspective and we are constantly offered insight into her deepest thoughts. She starts the story as a friendless milksop with an overactive imagination. From there she is robbed of her few admirable qualities by Hill House as she starts losing her marbles. By mid-novel, I found her constant neurotic inner monologue to be irritating rather than scary. I stopped caring about her as a character. By the end I was begging Hill House to put this poor slob out of her misery.

This is a lesson in character identification when you're trying to create your protagonist, you writers. When you're crafting a protagonist, you have to give them at least one admirable quality. This character has to be not only realistic and therefore easy to sympathize with, but the readers also need a reason WHY they would want to sympathize. This reason has to be a personality trait that makes him or her better than the other characters.

This personality trait doesn't even have to be that admirable. People like James Bond for some reason. Why? Because he's a way more effective spy than everybody else: he's an efficient killer and he always gets the girl. But if you really think about it, why would you ever want to know a guy like that? He's kind of a sociopath. Yet millions of people worldwide continue to identify with him.

In the case of Eleanor Vance, she starts the story lame, but you can see her vivid imagination and will to make her life better despite her past hardships. You want to like her. But then, her imagination is turned against her by the evil will of Hill House and her desire to change her life is subverted. With these qualities removed, Eleanor Vance is just a crazy-lady and it is very frustrating to be inside her head.

The Haunting of Hill House is a masterpiece in a way, but I cannot give it an extremely high recommendation because of problems with Eleanor. I still maintain that it is a must-read for anybody interested in horror because of the terrifying way that Jackson handles the spirits of Hill House. But because I was asking myself, "Why am I reading this?" near the end, it honestly breaks my heart to give it:
3 1/2 doors that shut on their own out of 5

By the way, I loved the 1963 movie adaptation of this book. For once. the movies did it right. The terror of the book is captured perfectly and the majority of Eleanor's insane inner-prattle is omitted. Go rent it!