BOOK CLUB: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

For this month’s book club we decided to get into the Halloween spirit by reading Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Regarded as one of the best 20th century ghost stories this story follows a group of paranormal investigators as they spend the summer in a supposedly haunted house with a dark past and begin to experience some seriously strange goings on.

As with last month’s book club we ended up with some wildly different opinions.

SPOILER WARNING: The following post contains major spoilers for the plot of The Haunting of Hill House.

Elen: We picked this book as our spooky Halloween read, how did you rate its scariness? Personally, I avoided scaring myself using my patented method of reading only in broad daylight because I love spooky stuff but am also a major wimp. However, I definitely think it would have been scary if I’d decided to read at night.

Kate: Overall this is definitely more of a creepy and unsettling read that a scary one, though I did find the knocking on the doors pretty intense (I read this late at night however which makes everything spookier). I think like the house itself the creepiness is built on things being infinitesimally off, from the oddness of Eleanor perspective to the way it defies what you expect from a typical haunted house story.

Rosie: I am way more into psychological thrillers than horrors, so this book succeeded in freaking me out. I will say that the scariest part was the middle and it faded towards the end. It became more like a psychiatric report on Eleanor’s crazy. The knocking and the blood on the walls were the highlights for me.

Hayley: I agree with Rosie. About halfway in I was getting spooked and I was super enjoying it but afterwards it just became about Eleanor wandering around the house in a haze. I was DEFINITELY scared by the hand holding scene (literally heart pounding in my chest) and it really got my hopes up! I was overall disappointed by the rest of the story, particularly the ending. I found it almost predictable and really I wanted more. The scary aspect of the story also diminished when the characters became more argumentative than fearful, they didn’t really see anything scary, so why should I?

Michelle: I definitely found certain parts spooky, especially the first ‘knocking’ incident and the blood on the walls. I did read a lot of the book at night, however, which intensified these spooky sections (like Hayley said, the revelation that Eleanor wasn’t holding Theo’s hand made my heart stop!) Also, these scary episodes were mixed with quite a slow narrative, so that you jump between a few intense, bone chilling pages to the main characters joking with each other over breakfast. While there was a strong climax, I felt like the overall tone was too jumpy for me to really be encompassed by the spookiness of it all.

Kate: What did you think of Eleanor’s perspective? She’s obviously a pretty unstable person and possibly an unreliable narrator, did you think that helped the unsettling tone of the book or would you have preferred seeing another view on the events?

Rosie: Eleanor suited the style of the story pretty well. I think a lot of the eeriness would have been lost if the protagonist had been anyone else. We needed that mix of madness and insecurity to blur the lines of reality. I also think Eleanor’s instability, plus her position as the center of events, make for a very surreal reading experience. However, she was getting on my nerves by the end. I felt the leap from scared to batshit crazy was way too sudden.

Elen: I think the perspective worked well for the tone of the book. Anyone else and I think it would have been a very different creature. I like the unreliable narrator as it makes you wonder how much was real and how much was simply inside Eleanor’s head. Particularly the second knocking attack which she seemed to find much more extreme than the others.

Hayley: I think Eleanor as a protagonist was a good choice, her instability gave the story an edge where you weren’t sure what was going on because she didn’t really know herself. I think it was her guilt over her mother that halted her character for me. So while the instability worked, it also damaged the narrative. It irritated me that she hid her feelings from the others which strained their relationships and stunted the narrative. I felt that her original motive for being there was tenuous and how she proceeded was unconvincing. Mostly I have problems with the lack of scare factor, and while I largely blame Eleanor for that, ultimately I think she was the right narrator as the others would have been even worse!

Michelle: I am a huge fan of the ‘unreliable narrator,’ and I think it works particularly in psychological thrillers/horrors. The questions it raised made for a much more enjoyable reading experience for me. I also just found Eleanor an intriguing and believable character – she’s been cooped up her whole life and is in search of adventure, while simultaneously having no idea how to interact or connect with other people. Her unsettling personality and narrative style really worked for the story, and I think it would have been not as engaging from another perspective.

Kate: What did you think of Mrs. Montague and Arthur? Distracting and unnecessary or did they help balance against the increasing darkness of Eleanor’s character?

Rosie: Unnecessary. I liked the ghost communicating via blood messages, I don’t think there needed to be a medium, and I don’t think the Doctor’s character needed to be undermined with an annoying, self-centred wife.

Elen: I think they may have been included as a dig at the spiritualist movement as they use those methods of communication (planchette, automatic writing) over the Doctor’s scientific approach and are largely ridiculed for their perspective that ghosts are creatures in need of help rather than malevolent entities.

Hayley: I like your view on it Elen, that’s quite eye opening when you look back on it. However, I’m with Rosie on this one, they didn’t add anything to the plot, just judged the other characters and act superior. They had no dynamic with the rest of the group at Hill House and were rather useless.  

Michelle: I agree with my fellow Buds, while they added a comedic element to the story that isn’t what I wanted at that moment. I wanted it to be slightly darker, developing more on some of the past stories of Hill House. Give me more eeriness, dammit! I did like how they seemed to poke fun at spiritualism, but yeah, not really necessary, especially as I was quite enjoying the dynamic between the four characters in the house, with their intense connection despite only knowing each other a few days. The insertion of Mrs Montague and Arthur ruined this feeling of skewed time.

Rosie: What did you think of ‘journeys end in lovers meeting’? Is it a part of Eleanor’s obsessive behaviour or does it have a deeper meaning?

Elen: I think it represents Eleanor’s intense desire for her experience at Hill House to be a turning point in her life, she wants this to result in her happy ending, that’s why she becomes so attached to the idea of going with Theodora and ultimately I think why she would rather die than return to her old life.

Kate: I agree with Elen, I think it represents Eleanor’s expectations for Hill House and also the reader’s expectations for her, we want her to be happy and run off into the sunset. But in a twisted way it also refers to the meeting between her and the entity in the House, who gives her that feeling of belonging. To me it means that at the end of journey you meet your destiny, be it the love of your life, or if you’re unlucky something like Eleanor’s tragic destiny within the House.

Hayley: For me, particularly at the end, it was a love of death. I feel like Eleanor wanted to die even before she entered Hill House. The house was just enhancing her feelings about life, how she was always reaching for something exciting, but instead, only getting grief and misery. I also think it was her desperation to connect with anyone, which is what she projected upon Theodora and Luke.

Michelle: Initially, the phrase seemed quite innocent, but the more Eleanor used it the more disturbing it became, especially as the reader watched her obsession with Theo grow and grow By the end, however, it became a desperate cry for help; all Eleanor ever wanted was to connect with people. The ghostly presence in the house that Eleanor does end up ‘connecting’ with almost becomes her lover, in a way – her journey ends at the House, the place where she felt connected to something and refuses to leave.

Rosie: What do you guys think of the relationship between Theodora and Eleanor? It seems to me to span everything from cousins to enemies to secret lesbians.

Elen: I definitely read Theodora as lesbian or bisexual with her roommate ‘friend’, but I think on Eleanor’s part it may have been more of an obsessive attachment to the first person she could consider a friend. I think she was more in love with the idea of being Theodora, someone confident and at ease in social situations.

Kate: I really liked their relationship and I felt it rang very true to life in terms of the introverted Eleanor wanting to be like Theodora and wanting Theo to like her, and then that turning to hatred when neither of them live up to her expectations. I really felt for Eleanor when Theo has to wear her new, ’adventurous’ clothes and carries them off so much better than she does; that little irritation really exemplified that feeling of never being able to be as cool as the people you admire no matter how hard you try.

Elen:  Exactly I could definitely relate to Eleanor’s mixed feelings toward Theodora, I think we’ve all had a friendship like that at some point where you kind of hate them but also can’t bear to let them go.

Hayley: Eleanor wants Theo to be family, there appears to be some sexual tension, but I think it’s just lust for connection, not necessarily physical. I think Eleanor desired both Luke and Theo, and when they started bonding Eleanor’s perspective of Theo turned sour. Eleanor started to need Theo but hate her at the same time, and Theo started to see Eleanor as a needy addition to their group. I think Eleanor was quite insightful about Theodora always wanting to be the centre of attention. Theodora definitely saw herself as superior to Eleanor and was resentful of that fact that she had to compete with Eleanor for the attention that she craved.

Michelle: I thought that Theo and Eleanor’s friendship was really well written, and as the others have said, very believable for this kind of unbalanced friendship that often exists. Eleanor craves Theo’s attention, desperately wanting a true friend, and Theo seems to take her under her wing. However, a tension emerges between the characters, be it sexual or competitive or just due to everyone being on edge, that builds to the point where they suddenly can’t stand each other. Honestly it just seems to me that Eleanor needs and wants connection of any kind, which is why she is the one who is the most susceptible to the strangely emotive presence in the House.  

Elen: What do you think was inside Hill House? A ghost or just a general aura of evil? Personally I think it draws upon the people within the house, it corrupts them and exploits their own weakness. Ultimately I think the real evil inside Hill House was the guests themselves and their potential for corruption.

Kate: I think it works best for the entity or aura to remain mysterious and Jackson ridicules Mrs. Montague’s attempts to contact and soothe the lonely spirit and Dr. Montague’s overly scientific attempts at analysis like trying to measure the cold spot. I agree that it drew on the petty jealousies and the evil inside each of the characters, ultimately Eleanor had the most pent up anger and the strongest desire to belong which allowed her to be draw into its thrall. I liked how in the end what made it so terrifying wasn’t their fear but how it made Eleanor feel safe and loved which was so much more dangerous.

Hayley: I think the residing evil within Hill House started with the original sisters. I don’t think that the house was built with evil intent, but the evil that then took place is what ruined the uniqueness of the house. I think what kicked it off was the grief that the companion felt for her friend, which is why Eleanor was the target of the house. She was also grieving and the companion manifestation exploited that. While there were several elements to making that house evil, I also think there was more that we didn’t see, like Michelle said. But I think it’s the companion that really resides there, not as a physical ghost, but as an impression.

Michelle: Is it strange that I almost felt sorry for this ghostly presence in the House? Maybe Mrs Montague and Arthur rubbed off on me…! Actually, I really felt sorry for Eleanor, who had all these emotions pent up inside of her and then the House took advantage of that. I agree that it wasn’t one singular ‘ghost’ that was haunting the house, but an amalgamation that fed off of people’s weaknesses, while craving the same connection that Eleanor is searching for. She falls victim to this entity, and then becomes a part of the thing that destroyed her.

Elen: I like that we all have such different ideas about what was in the house, I think that’s what Jackson was going for. Everyone can interpret it differently whether as it’s as literal ghosts, an aura of evil or something even more unexplainable.

Hayley: Overall, were you satisfied with the ending, did you think that Eleanor’s death suited the narrative or could it have been done better? I really didn’t like the ending and wanted more of a climax. While I think it was right that Eleanor died, I don’t think it was done justice. The house is such a spectacle, so a car crash was a let down for me. As the back half of the narrative took such a dive downwards I was holding out hope that the ending would rise to a crescendo. It really didn’t. I like that there were unanswered questions, but Eleanor’s death was subpar at best.

Kate: I love the ending actually, unlike everyone else I liked how the spookiness tapered off towards the end, making you think that much of what happened could have been in Eleanor’s head. Then when the others insist she leaves you think that perhaps there will be a ‘happy’ ending wherein she doesn’t die but goes back to the unhappiness but normality of her old life. Instead her desperation to avoid this and the comfort she has found within the House drives her to a crazy attempt to stay with the others and the house by any possible means. I liked how her choosing to drive into the tree referred back to the mention of the last person to leave the house in the night having also crashed into the tree. When you first hear of this you think it’s a malevolent spirit which has caused this but after the end it throws all of that into a different light. I loved the last lines’ implications of the tragedy and hopelessness of everything which had happened too, the doctor doesn’t get his proof and Eleanor/the entity/all of the house’s ghosts are still alone in death.

Michelle: I was initially pretty let down by the ending, mainly because the climax tapered out and Eleanor’s death didn’t really hit me like the tower scene did. That being said, EXCELLENT LAST LINE, and upon reflection I did like how it ended. Eleanor was so encompassed by the House that she can’t bear to part with it, because she sees so much of herself in the House,  and finally finds that *connection*. I just wish that she’d actually died in the House that broke her, and not by crashing her car into the tree in front of the house. Just seems like a wasted opportunity, really.

Elen: I liked the ending I think because it matched up with my interpretation of the ‘ghost’. In the end the house doesn’t kill Eleanor, she kills herself. I think if she’d died in a more explicitly supernatural manner that ambiguity would have been lost and it would be clear the house itself had killed her rather that simply making her susceptible. As the saying goes the devil may lead you to the water but he doesn’t make you drink.

Rosie’s Rating – 2.5/5. Potential, but weighed down by a poor ending and slow beginning.

Kate’s Rating – 5/5 – I just really loved this, loved the writing, loved the atmosphere, I even loved the strangeness of the ending.

Elen’s Rating – 4/5 – The narrative voice worked really well and I liked the ambiguous nature of the ending and which allows everyone to draw their own conclusions.

Hayley’s Rating – 2/5 – Ultimately I was disappointed with the book, I wanted so much more. Particularly for the ending and Eleanor’s development.

Michelle’s Rating – 3 / 5 – a solid thriller/horror story. The tone and pacing was just off, I enjoyed more thinking about the implications afterwards, than actually reading.

Average rating: 3.5/5 stars

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