Books: The Haunting of HIll House (1959) and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) by Shirley Jackson
Age/Genre: Gothic Horror/Thriller
Preferred Reading Environment: Your secret fort in the woods
Reading Accoutrements: A packed picnic and a cat to cuddle with
Content Notes: Mental Illness, Prejudice, Death
Earlier this year, I decided to catalogue all of my books (yeah, I know, it’s pointless, but it makes me happy, okay?). As I was going through them, horror novels kept catching my eye, and I decided that for October, I was going to read mostly horror. I put aside a few, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting my October stack for months now.
The first on my list was The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson. I’ve seen the two movie adaptations, but never read the novel. I also watched the Netflix series of the same name, which I have always been puzzled by. I thoroughly enjoyed the series, but besides taking the character’s names and some specifics of the house itself, I see little connection between the series and the book. The plot and premise are completely different. But anyway, this isn’t a series/book comparison.
The Haunting of Hill House primarily follows Eleanor Vance, a woman in her mid-thirties who has very little in her life following the death of her ailing mother for whom she spent most of her life caregiving. Eleanor has received a letter from a Dr. John Montague. Montague is trying to study supernatural activity at a home with a mysterious and dark history. He wrote letters to twelve people who he believes will be helpful in summoning and studying the supernatural. He receives two positive responses: Eleanor’s and Theodora’s. Eleanor was asked because of a paranormal experience she had as a child. Theodora, also known as Theo, is kind of a spiritual hippie, who quickly becomes Eleanor’s friend and rival. The trio is joined by Luke Sanderson, a representative of the family who owns the home.
Much of the story is dedicated to describing the house and grounds, with plenty of subtle oddities thrown in. Hill House’s caregivers are almost comedicaly unwelcoming, and the people in the nearby town are just as unfriendly. We are shown most things from Eleanor’s perspective, which is unreliable. It’s difficult to discern whether weird happenings stem from the house or from some force within Eleanor. The house could be manipulating Eleanor, Eleanor could have some sort of paranormal attraction, or she might be predisposed to mental instability. Throughout Hill House, we see her get increasingly paranoid and separated from reality. The only thing we know for sure is that she believes the thoughts in her head.
As I was getting ready to read Hill House, my husband saw Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Shadows go through the library he works at. He decided to check it out, and I figured it’d be a fun book to read relatively close together so we could discuss. This one was a super quick read, and the tone and experience can be pretty easily summarized by its infamous first paragraph:
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.
The story follows Mary Katherine’s weekly routine living with her sister and uncle until they are disrupted by a meddling cousin. The people in the nearby village resent the Blackwoods, partially because of their wealth and partially because of the family’s unfortunate past. Mary Katherine believes if she sticks to her routines and follows certain superstitions, like imbuing words with power, that her family will remain safe in their secluded home. There are no major surprises in this book, but it’s a fun creepy thriller with a lot of effective tension. Unlike in Hill House, it’s clear that all the sinister-ness in Castle is human-derived.
In both books, we see things through the lens of an unreliable protagonist. In Castle, Mary Katherine’s voice dictates the overall tone. This voice is scattered and also somewhat divorced from reality. She dreams of flying her winged horse to the moon where she and her sister live safely alone. She talks to her cat, who has stories to share in return. She fastidiously buries items of importance as a protective barrier around their property. In town, she is paranoid about the villager’s thoughts of her and her family, and we are shown that some of that paranoia is warranted.
The copy I read of We Have Always Lived in the Castle has one of those introductions that’s best read after reading the book. I went back and read it after finishing the novel, and it made me want to read more of Jackson’s work. Since her bibliography consists of six books and just under 30 short stories, I feel like it would be manageable and worthwhile to read the entirety of her work at some point. Jackson put a lot of herself in her characters, and shared her oddities with the public in a time when those oddities weren’t accepted. She was a practicing witch, for example, and as reclusive as many of her characters. Her writing process for Hill House included mapping out both the upper and lower floors. I’m intrigued to learn more about her life and experience more of her writing.
These books are my favorite type of horror – creepy and ambiguous, relying largely on characters rather than violence or the supernatural. I can see why her work inspired so many other horror authors (seriously, Stephen King’s Rose Red mini-series was more closely based on Hill House than the Netflix series).
What’s your favorite Horror classic?