No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, 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.
So begins Shirley Jackson’s pitch-perfect horror story – in my opinion an opening that ranks with War and Peace, Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre for its magical promise that, whatever the pages ahead will contain, it’s going to be very very good.
I use the word magical deliberately because, for all the differences of genre, the novel ‘The Haunting’ most reminded me of was Von Arnim’s sublimely joyful ‘The Enchanted April.’ In both books, a group of disparate strangers agree to live together in an isolated location, a place with potentially supernatural powers over the minds and attitudes of its inhabitants. In ‘The Enchanted April’ this is for the sake of a holiday; here motivations are more complex, but the excuse is an interest, or willingness to pretend an interest, in psychical research. Both books are laugh-out-loud funny, wonderfully empathetic towards their main characters and so engrossing that reading becomes a balancing act between admiration for their sheer brilliance and escapism into the story being told.
All this is on display when we meet our protagonist: ‘Eleanor Vance was thirty-two years old when she came to Hill House. The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister. She dislike her brother-in-law and her five-year-old niece, and she had no friends.’ Eleanor’s warped and complex personality is perfectly matched by the torturous architecture of Hill House – built using slightly off-kilter angles so doors won’t stay open, windows give unexpected views and it is almost impossible to orientate yourself. Around half way through the book, as the incongruent visitors are under increasing attack from the malevolent forces they are supposed to be investigating, Eleanor suddenly thinks ‘Of all of us, I am surely the one least likely to turn against the others.’ The phrase comes out of nowhere and the reader shivers, fearing for everyone trapped in Hill House, especially for the poor benighted Eleanor herself.
‘The Haunting of Hill House’ is as cunningly and disconcertingly constructed as its unforgettable setting. Like the best horror stories it truly reflects its title – I am as haunted by my encounter with Hill House as its unfortunate visitors, even if, thanks to Jackson’s genius, I am able to gasp in delight as well as horror as I meet ‘whatever walked there…‘