Book Review: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (Audiobook narrated by Bernadette Dunne)
Dr. Montague is a scholar of the occult, and he invites three other people to stay with him in Hill House, which is notorious for being haunted. There’s jovial Theodora, timid Eleanor, and the future heir of the house, Luke. What starts as a light-hearted adventure quickly turns sinister in this horror classic.
I actually started reading this audiobook way back in September for the Readers Imbibing Peril challenge. It’s only 7.5 hours long, so I thought it’d be a quick read. I think the fact that it wasn’t demonstrates quite well how not drawn into the story I was. This is a classic haunted house tale that perhaps might not work for the modern reader, depending on how much horror they generally imbibe.
This is going to be a quick review because I honestly don’t have too much to say about the book. Four people arrive at a house. Things appear normal, except one of them, Eleanor, clearly is a bit more emotionally unstable than the rest. She is, for instance, shocked that anyone is interested in her or asks her questions. She also has trouble with her own identity, such as knowing for sure what she likes to eat. Odd things start to happen in the house, and because Eleanor is odd, the others aren’t sure if it’s the house doing them or Eleanor herself. Eleanor becomes overly attached to Theodora. Drama ensues.
None of the house horror scenes really got to me, because frankly I’ve seen worse in plenty of other horror I read. I do love the genre. The parts that actually disturbed me were when the others in the household were inexplicably cruel to Eleanor. That dynamic of an odd woman randomly tossed in with strangers who proceed to be mean to her in a highschoolish way held my interest more than the house did. People and their cruelty are so much more frightening than a haunted house. I understand that the book is sort of leaving it up to the reader to wonder if the house or the people really drive Eleanor crazy, but frankly I think the ending removes all question on this point.
Similarly, there are definitely some undertones in the Theodora/Eleanor relationship that indicates they might possibly have had a fling early on and then Theodora abruptly distances herself from Eleanor when she gets too clingy. None of this is said outright, however it is heavily implied that Theodora’s roommate back home is her lover who she had a quarrel with, and she and Eleanor establish a close bond early on in the book. The problem is this all stays subtext and is never brought out in the open of the book. I get it that this book was published in 1959 so it probably had to stay subtext and was most likely shocking to a reader in the 50s. But to me, a modern reader, it felt like the book kept almost getting interesting and then backing off from it. The combination of the former issue and this one meant that I was left feeling unengaged and uninterested. Basically, I feel that the book didn’t go quite far enough to be shocking, horrifying, or titillating.
The audiobook narration by Bernadette Dunne was excellent as always, and the main reason I kept listening rather than just picking up a copy of the book and speed reading it. I love listening to her voice.
Overall, this classic was boundary pushing when it was first published but it might not come across that way to a modern reader. Readers who read a lot of modern horror might find this book a bit too tame for their tastes. Those interested in the early works of the genre will still enjoy the read, as will modern readers looking for horror lite. Readers looking for the rumored GLBTQ content in this book will most likely be disappointed by the subtlety of it, although those interested in early representation in literature will still find it interesting.
3 out of 5 stars