The Haunting of Hill House

Shirley Jackson can really write. Her prose is elegant – it has one of my favourite final sentences ever* – and her observations acute. She knows how to tell a story. But I found this book a little too elegantly written and a little too acutely observed.

Perhaps my disappointment is down to my preconceptions. I expected a story about four people conducting a study of a haunted New England mansion to have a little more haunting and not so much character. To put it bluntly: more action, less talk.

Because every time the house exerts its supernatural grip, the narrative seems to slide into it sideways and you have to skip back a few paragraphs to pinpoint where this happened. What’s more, the descriptions are vague and dreamy. They’re rarely precise. It’s often difficult to know exactly what’s happening.

Again: my problem. I think this is Shirley Jackson’s intent. She’s after atmosphere more than action; suggestion in place of a straight description. She wants the setting to insinuate itself into the reader’s consciousness, much as Hill House takes over the mind of its leading character. (The most effective scenes for me were with two late arrivals: insensitive boors both and almost caricatures, but so vivid and memorable I kept wanting more of them.) This is a book about a haunting in which the prose itself is haunted.

*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.

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