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The Haunting of Hill House and Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson

By Rusty | Books | September 16, 2009 |

By Rusty | Books | September 16, 2009 |

The Haunting of Hill House

I’m sure that young horror fans today would, by and large, have no place on their shelves for Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. After all, no one gets dismembered, there’s no bogey-man with a hook or chainsaw, and all the characters are well into their late twenties if not early thirties and the instances of people being surprised mid hook up to cause them to run screaming naked from an apparition are nil. However, for people who appreciate the horror genre as it was presented historically, in the works of Edgar Allen Poe and the like, The Haunting of Hill House is an elegant piece of psychological horror that gives you nearly no answers to the many unsettling questions it poses.

The story is told roughly from the perspective of Eleanor, a quiet mousy woman in her early 30s who has spent most of her adult life caring for her ill mother who died recently, and who now lives with her sister who still treats her as though she’s a slightly dim child. She receives an invitation to spend the summer in Hill House from a Dr.Montague who is investigating paranormal phenomena, and Eleanor basically steals the car she shares with her sister and sets out for the house. Once there she meets the only other individual who responded to Dr.Montague’s invitation, Theodora, and the young man set to inherit the house, Luke. At first the house only seems to cause a strong sense of unease in all of them, but then the ‘hauntings’ start.

It’s hard to describe the hauntings in the boo;, most manifest with little to no visual effects and we can only take the words of the characters that they’re really happening. Things like banging on doors, a dog-like specter moving through the house, but it becomes clear early on that whatever is haunting the house (or the house itself) has fixated on Eleanor. When writings begin to pop up, in chalk in one instance and in something that appears to be blood in another, Eleanor is referred to by name. As the story progresses, whether or not Eleanor is a reliable narrator is a matter of confusion, and by the final sequence it’s hard to tell how much of what’s happening is because Hill House is haunted and how much is due to Eleanor being unstable.

The Haunting of Hill House is not action packed by any stretch of the imagination. Jackson works harder to establish mood and build tension and make the viewer feel the effect of warped time as it’s being felt by the characters. The entire story takes place in slightly over a week, but the way the story is told makes it feel much longer than that. The questions posed by the events of the story are never really answered. Hill House is not suddenly revealed to have a bloody history, as I said above there’s no mad man hiding in the closets, and that the people in the house are somehow manifesting the events themselves is clearly presented as a possibility. You can choose to see Hill House as haunted, or you can choose to view it as a mansion built by an eccentric whose plans made for an unsettling environment that played hell on the psyche of a group of people in mind to witness supernatural phenomena. Jackson’s comfort in leaving things unexplained, and ability to pull back when things seem to be getting close to an explanation make for a wonderfully unsettling read.

The Haunting of Hill House is a dark little horror story that might make it hard to get to sleep, but which is incredibly satisfying on a literary level. I found it to be immensely enjoyable, but I’m a fan of Jackson to begin with so take that as you will.

Raising Demons

In addition to her work in horror novels and short stories, Shirley Jackson also wrote two sort of non-fiction novels about her personal life. The best known of the two is Life Among the Savages. Raising Demons is the follow-up to that book, and virtually impossible to find for sale. Luckily, my university’s library saw fit to keep a copy around for god only knows why.

At the time of Raising Demons, Jackson’s family has grown to include six people (herself, her husband and her four children) and a revolving door of pets. There’s really no plot to describe, the book moves forward in episodic fashion in roughly chronological order, and all the stories center around Jackson’s life as a stay at home mom, faculty wife, and the exploits of her children, husband, and pets. There’s nothing here that would remind you of her other, more darker stories, other than Jackson’s exceptional ability to tell a story.

I will say that as someone who is currently not married and child free, it’s sometimes hard to relate to the anecdotes at times. There’s places where I wonder why her kids are so obnoxious, or her husband so obtuse and why a clearly brilliant woman would put up with that kind of behavior. Then I remember my own childhood house keeping abilities and give all parties involved a little slack. Besides, Jackson’s own brand of exceptionally dry humor works so with the ridiculous antics of her children and pets that you’re almost glad that her fridge door fell off. Or that a planned spousal getaway to New York City turns into a family trip.

Raising Demons is a funny view of family life in the late 50’s that paints a scene occasionally very different from the one presented by most popular fiction. Jackson’s wit and insight turn what could be a mundane series of events into a hilarious account of exactly how strange normal life can be.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Rusty’s review, check her blog, Rusty’s Ventures.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.