I haven’t tried to write one yet, so I can’t be sure, but it seems to me that haunted house stories must be fairly hard to pull off successfully. The tropes are by now very familiar: the brooding mansion sitting on a large estate out in the country; the history of eccentric owners who met dolorous ends in the house; the fact that people who have attempted to stay in the house have failed miserably; the odd, almost robotic housekeeper who still stays on at the house; decriptions of the house itself as “evil”, “malevolent”, et cetera.
All of these tropes are present in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Maybe it’s the familiarity of the haunted house story that made the book suffer a bit for me, as I found the story rather hard to really get involved in. The feeling of malice in the book never really came alive, at least not until near the end. The book does not so much “build” as “meander”, and then it suddenly arrives. The only real indicator of an impending climax in the book is the dwindling page-count as one reads it, which I found disappointing. I’ve admired Jackson’s short fiction, and I have also read a great deal of praise for her novels (and this novel in particular), so I am quite surprised by my reaction.
The story is fairly simple: four people go to live for a time in Hill House, as an experiment at the behest of a researcher into the paranormal. Living in the house tends to bring out the worst in all of the characters, for some reason, and it is to Jackson’s credit as a writer that each character becomes unpalatable in his or her own way. Unfortunately, though, the characters are not balanced, as the tortures and self-loathing of Eleanor overtake everyone else. (Yes, I know that in the end there is a reason for that, but it still doesn’t help the two-hundred plus pages leading up to it.) There are the standard “things that go bump in the night”, but some plausible explanations for this are provided along the way. In fact, nearly everything that happens in the book seems to have a plausible explanation, so we are never particularly certain if Hill House really is haunted or not. That’s an interesting angle, but it never really takes flight.
I wanted to like The Haunting of Hill House much more than I did. My attention was simply never grabbed as a good horror story should (or any good story, for that matter). For a very similar story executed in more involving fashion, check out Richard Matheson’s Hell House.