Author and historical consultant on witchcraft and magic

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

Nov 28, 2023 | Blog

An oldie, but a goodie, Shirley Jackson’s 1959 short novel can still send a shiver down the spine. Jackson believed in ghosts but she also believed in human delusion and she thought that might actually be more frightening than supernatural spirits. The Haunting of Hill House is about both kinds of threat.

Eleanor, Theodora and Luke each have something to escape and choose a haunted house as their getaway. It’s only for a few nights. Eleanor flees her judgemental sister and the memory of her needy mother. Theodora walks out after tensions with a lover who, it’s strongly hinted, is a woman. Dilettante Luke finds purpose in welcoming guests to his abandoned family mansion. The three blithely join the psychic investigator Dr Montague in his study of Hill House, and at first they enjoy a freedom beyond the oppressions of 1950s American life.

But with its creepy housekeeper and maze-like rooms the house is a classic gothic trap. Violent events bewilder the visitors, until neither they nor readers are sure what’s real. Are there timeslips and poltergeists or just malicious pranks? Will the guests’ bantering and flirtations last? Will all of them survive Hill House? The reader follows Eleanor, wistful and envious, in her search for happiness freed from her mother’s grip. Jackson teases readers with beautifully evoked symbols from her fantasies of adult living: stone lions on the drive, white cats in the window, splashes of nail polish on her toes (or is it blood?) The novel’s 50s themes of hysteria and repression are familiar, because Jackson blazed a much-followed literary trail. Her psychological set pieces and disintegrating relationships are now staples of horror film and might or might not surprise or scare you. But definitely don’t read the book on your own in the dark.

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Marion’s Latest Book

The Witches of St. Osyth: Persecution, Murder and Betrayal in Elizabethan England

The Witches of St. Osyth: Persecution, Murder and Betrayal in Elizabethan England

(Cambridge University Press, 2022)
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