Women in Horror Month: The Haunting of Hill House

Title: The Haunting of Hill House
Author: Shirley Jackson
Publisher: Penguin

“The literary effect we call horror turns on the dissolution of boundaries, between the living and the dead, of course, but also, at the crudest level, between the outside of the body and everything that ought to stay inside.”

-Laura Miller (from the introduction to The Haunting of Hill House)

To be perfectly honest, Laura Miller’s introduction will say everything about this book I wish to say and in a more elegant way. Though, unless you don’t mind spoilers, I wouldn’t read it until you read The Haunting of Hill House.

So where should I start? Madness? Ghosts?

How about last week’s post. You see, I began to talk about use of barriers last week as I saw the above quote as I started Shirley Jackson’s debut novel. Where Spellbent had some obvious barrier symbology, The Haunting of Hill House permeates with with it subtly. The story is that of Eleanor Vance, a young woman who has taken care of an over bearing mother until her recent death, only to be left living with an overbearing sister, who joins four other strangers to Hill House for the summer. They were brought together by Dr. Montague to study the psychic disturbances of this “haunted” house.

Eleanor, being the most weak willed after a life time of familial castigation, becomes the the focal point of all the events in the book related to the house. When she takes off with her sister’s car, she believes this is the start of a life of freedom. In here mind she broke through the barrier between living and the almost ghost-like life she lived, haunting her sisters house and family. As she travels to Hill House, she takes in parts of her journey and weaves a fantasy of finding a place secluded from everyone to live. As she arrives and takes her place among the event of the odd construct that is Hill House, it is no mistake that the first full conversation among her, Theodora, and Luke, is all lies. Known lies meant to create a levity among them, but lies no the less. It is here that we see where the barrier of  where Eleanor beings and ends starts to wear away and will continue to do so till the very end.

The true horror of this book is not the supernatural force that haunts the guests and chooses to play with Eleanor over the other, slowly eroding her sanity. It’s the trap that Hill House is both in actuality and as symbol for Eleanor’s life. Hill House, a building whose doors always shut, with rooms inside rooms, and designed to unnerve and confuse the senses, is a claustrophobic terror for all four of the guests. But for Eleanor, is is a realization that her fantasy is still a trap she can never leave. To leave is to return to haunting her sister’s life and never live again. This is why she opens herself to the spirit of the house, in doing so breaking that barrier between self and other. Because it would happen either way, once this retreat was over she would either not exist at Hill House or back with her sister.

If there was ever a reason to do Women in Horror Month posts, it is because of Shirley Jackson. Here is a women that wrote dark fiction with very real female characters and from a female perspective. The Haunting of Hill House could never be written by a man because men would never go through a similar situation as Eleanor. And without Eleanor as she is, the story would never come to fruition. This is a classic that anyone in the horror genre would say is integral to the development of the genre. And it is exhibit A in the case for the important role of women in horror.

Horror Reader Level: Beginner

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