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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson: A Book Review

Spooky season is finally upon us.


Published in 1959, The Haunting of Hill House is the fifth novel by American author Shirley Jackson and arguably her most popular. The book is 182 pages long split into 9 chapters. It is regarded as a literary classic, an example of gothic horror, and one of the best ghost stories of the 20th century serving as the inspiration for two film adaptations, a play, and television series. The year after it was published, the book was a finalist for the National Book Award.


“Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Dr. John Montague, a college professor and researcher in psychic phenomena, recruits three young people to assist him in exploring and investigating Hill House, a house tainted with a dark past and that is regarded as haunted by former guests. The recruits are:

Eleanor, a shy, soft-spoken and timid young lady who is recovering from the recent passing of her mother–seemingly well, by the way, as Eleanor has had to care for her invalid mother for the past eleven years–and who has been living with her sister and spouse for the past year.

Theodora, an outspoken, lively Bohemian artist with a paranormal background–a reoccurring instance of phantom raindrops in her childhood–has recently been in a fight with her roommate and didn’t want to around her so she took up Montague’s offer on staying in Hill House for the summer.

Luke Sanderson, heir to Hill House–the owners of the house, Luke’s parents, felt better about allowing the investigations with an heir under the roof. (Later, Montague’s wife shows up with another professor named Arthur, and they are an interesting pair to say the least).

All is fine and well at first, aside from a few awkward occurrences with the caretakers, an odd husband and wife duo, the Dudleys, but the four, Eleanor, Theodore, Luke, and the Doctor, quickly make acquaintance, become friends, and start having a wonderful vacation, productively making the best of their time cooped up in a massive, dusty, dark, eerie, and creepy house.

But very soon, strange things start happening. Loud bangs on the walls and doors start sounding, at first horrifying both Theo and Eleanor. The two men are drawn from their rooms by sounds of dogs barking inside the house, and even end up chasing a ghostly animal out into the yard. Isolated cold areas begins popping up around the house with putrid scents. There’s a scene that involved a ballroom dance with a invisible presence. And most odd of all, letters written in blood appear on the walls, phrases, sentences, instructions for Eleanor to go home.

Needless to say, the temporary inhabitants begin to get spooked, and the events don’t stop. Further events include a blood bath in Theodore’s room, a ghostly picnic in the woods that surround Hill House, and one character in particular falls entranced to the power of the house which ultimately leads to her inevitable demise. There is a powerful force that resides in Hill House, an underlying current of something sinister and whose grasp is unescapable.


This book is not a horror novel, in my opinion at least, because horror is defined as the feelings and emotions that a person experiences in response to an event or thing. Nothing happens in this book; that is to say, the reader never experiences feelings and emotions in response to an event or thing, as that event or thing never occurs. The fear instilled into the reader comes from the suspense and anticipation that precedes an event or thing, which is the definition of terror.

Furthermore, the majority of the scary moments are psychological, meaning only experienced in the characters’ heads. But through incredible description and an accurate portrayal of inner dialogue and mental processes, Shirley Jackson has managed to encapsulate the bone-chilling, shiver-sending, hair-raising sensation that comes with being truly, utterly, and completely terrified.

But besides the description of the scary moments, Jackson’s writing is unparalleled in every other aspect, namely her characters. Each character plays a very specific role that emphasizes how the supernatural phenomena of Hill House affect each character uniquely. Every character undergoes a transformation, each extremely different from another, and as the story unfolds, the unraveling of characters is juxtaposed against the paranormal manifestations of the house. Jackson, by her virtuosic talent for writing, exemplifies the overwhelmingly terrifying notion that the demons who lurk in the past can and do crawl into the future.


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