The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is The Turn of the Screw of the 20th century. Written in 1959, it reads partly like a Modernist novel, with whiffs of Virginia Woolf in the inner monologues, and partly like a Gothic script in the hands of Henry James. It’s the story of haunting as homecoming.
The strongest resemblance to James’ ghost story lies in the unreliability of the central character’s narrative: her perspective is skewed, and she is constantly second-guessing herself and her motives. In both stories, other characters also experience some strange recurring phenomena, but, as with James’ governess, Jackson’s Eleanor Vance is the only character in the story able to directly communicate with the supernatural elements in the haunted house: these, in their turn, target her specifically and by name.
Both women’s psyches are also, due to some experiences in their childhood, particularly vulnerable and sensitive to currents of feeling and thought that most people wouldn’t register. This seems to turn them into conduits for events that manifest largely on the psychic plain and leave few or no physical traces, thereby eluding scientific, rational analysis.
Both stories also unfold in a remote, secluded house in the countryside. But where the old Gothic manor in The Turn of the Screw is simply an aptly dark, ominous setting for the story, Hill House is endowed with consciousness and intent, which makes it the second central character of the book. It’s also the first we’re introduced to.
“Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within…”
Jackson makes it clear right away that whatever is wrong with the house, it is structural, built into it. Later, as we find out more about the nature of the man who built it, it’s suggested that whatever darkness was in his psyche imprinted itself onto the house, like some diseased architectural DNA.
“No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice.”
Eleanor’s arrival to Hill House at the beginning of the book is depicted as an escape, a bid for freedom from family ties which carry nothing but bad memories and a sense of suffocation. Although she’s initially scared by the house, it weirdly also feels for her like a sort of homecoming. Jackson writes,
“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…”
An atavism is a recurrence of, or reversion to, something from the past. Eleanor’s gut is telling her that whatever is in the house, she has known it before, and it’s not good for her. And yet, despite herself, Eleanor slowly surrenders to this familiar feeling. As one of the other characters staying at Hill House remarks to Eleanor, “This curious life agrees with you.”
It turns out that the house, claustrophobic and labyrinthine by design, is a vehicle for unleashing the real haunting taking place in Eleanor’s psyche. The house, mirroring Eleanor’s subconscious, takes it upon itself to reveal that Eleanor is in thrall to the ghost of her recently departed mother, who had kept her in psychological and emotional bondage by having Eleanor take care of her invalid self for 10 years, in what would’ve been seen as Eleanor’s “best years.”
This strange correlation of haunting with homecoming echoes Henry James’ less-known short story The Way It Came, where an unconsummated relationship between two people who have never physically met continues to haunt them even after the death of one of them. Their post mortem communication is shown as a homecoming in spirit, where the person being haunted not only accepts the haunting, but even welcomes it.
“Abandoning a lifelong belief that to name happiness is to dissipate it, she smiled at herself in the mirror and told herself silently, Eleanor, you have finally been given a part of your measure of happiness.”
Hill House lures Eleanor by suggesting in its communication with her that this is where she belongs. The house is successful in snaring her, rather than the other people living there, because she can’t let go of her feeling of simultaneous guilt and resentment towards her dead mother. The haunted house is apparently galvanized by a haunted psyche.
Horror stories are what I happily specialize in, and I came to read The Haunting of Hill House via Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, which was directly influenced by it. Jackson’s book is a gem in the genre of ghost stories. Shirley Jackson is a tremendous writer with a talent for very peculiar turns of phrase, and I look forward to reading some of her other works.