The Haunting of Hill House

by Shirley Jackson

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The Plot

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 526

In The Haunting of Hill House, a concealed evil is both psychically and physically aroused by the presence of a small group of people brought to a haunted house by a researcher of the paranormal, Dr. John Montague. Montague recruits three others to aid him in his analysis of what appears to be a genuine haunted house. The first, a lonely young woman named Eleanor Vance, had spent eleven years caring for an invalid mother whom she hated and who recently died. Theodora is an attractive artist with strong psychic gifts. Luke Sanderson, a cad with an instinct for self-preservation, is the nephew of Hill Houses current owner. Eleanor finds out that she was chosen by Montague because of a psychic experience she had when she was twelve years old: For three days, a shower of stones had fallen on her home.

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As the first to arrive at Hill House, Eleanor immediately is struck by the vile and diseased nature of the mansion. Architecturally, Hill House is ruled by the principle of clashing disharmony; fractionally wrong in all of its dimensions, it is filled with dark woodwork, enclosed rooms, doors that swing shut, rickety staircases, and hideously monochromatic rooms. During the first evening there, Montague relates the story of the family feud and the string of mysterious deaths that constitute the eighty-year history of the house. Despite her clear sense of the pervasive evil emanating from the dwelling, Eleanor feels, for the first time, that she belongs both to a place and to a group of people. She and Theodora whimsically claim to be cousins.

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Further investigation of the house reveals concrete evidence of the supernatural: a cold spot in front of the nursery, a deafening and prolonged hammering against a bedroom door, gloating laughter, and a fleeting glimpse of a mysterious animal. It becomes clear that the supernatural activities center on Eleanor when a message to her is written in chalk in the front hall. This cryptic message is repeated in blood on the walls of Theodoras room. One night, Eleanor is awakened by mysterious laughter and incomprehensible babble. She finds that the icy hand she has been gripping in fear could not have been human. She and Theodora witness a ghostly picnic.

Montagues wife and Arthur Parker arrive to undertake their own version of supernatural research. Insensitive to the houses true nature, they do not witness any manifestations, but during a séance they provide another opportunity for mysterious forces to send a message to Eleanor. She is singled out by the accelerating evil of the house, until she alone hears the messages it sends. Following them, she runs away mischievously, hiding from the others. At one point, she climbs a rotting staircase in the library, from which she must be rescued by Luke.

The others decide that, for her own safety, Eleanor must leave Hill House. In a final effort to remain in a place that she now perceives as both a home and an extension of herself, she deliberately crashes her car into the great tree at the curve of the driveway. Hill House can add another inexplicable death to its history.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 872

The Haunting of Hill House is a subtly eerie gothic horror story of an introverted young woman’s efforts to free herself from her personal prison and of the tragedy that results. It is brief, with only a few major incidents, although many details and symbols are woven together to create an emotionally complex story. Shirley Jackson uses the trappings of the genre to create a realistic psychological study of the troubled heroine and her sense of alienation.

The ghosts of Hill House remain offstage as the novel relies on suggestion for its shudders, with almost all of the story revealed through Eleanor’s eyes. After an argument with her sister over the use of their jointly owned automobile, Eleanor makes a bid for freedom in a trip to Hill House. She has been summoned to participate in a study of hauntings there because her home was pelted with a rain of stones when she was young, an incident for which she may have been responsible through telekinesis. Dr. Montague has also summoned a young woman known only as Theodora, who has exhibited strong extrasensory powers. Joining them is Luke, the reckless nephew of Hill House’s owner.

Upon their arrival, Theodora and Eleanor seem on the verge of becoming friends as they engage in humorous conversation following a meeting with the rigid housekeeper, Mrs. Dudley. It is a friendship the lonely Eleanor desperately needs, which is exhibited in her fabrication of a life for herself that incorporates elements that she saw on her trip, including stone lions and a cup decorated with stars.

As she and Theo explore the strangely designed Hill House, Eleanor develops a real feeling of happiness in spite of her eerie surroundings. “Journeys end in lovers meeting,” she constantly repeats to herself, indicating that she has found a sense of belonging.

In a fireside talk, Dr. Montague explains Hill House’s origins and tragedies. It was built by Hugh Crain as a country home, but his first wife died in a carriage wreck before ever seeing the house. His second wife died in an unexplained fall. The home was eventually left to his two daughters, who fought over it. After the older sister’s death, the house was willed to her companion, who may have been delinquent in answering her cries the night of her death. The companion, overwhelmed by accusations from the surviving sister as well as from townspeople, eventually committed suicide. It is this portion of the story that is most important to Eleanor, since the companion’s life resembles hers. Eleanor failed to hear her ailing mother’s cries for assistance until it was too late.

Shortly after Montague’s account, strange events begin. Sounds in the night terrify Theodora and Eleanor while Luke and Montague are distracted. Later, old writings with Eleanor’s name appear as if the house were calling to her. Eleanor panics at this sight and is placed at odds with Theodora, who begins to chide her about recognized embellishments of the truth.

Eventually the message “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME ELEANOR” appears on Theodora’s bedroom wall, and red stains mar her clothing. This forces Theodora to move into Eleanor’s room and to borrow her clothing, but they are not drawn together closer as friends. As they share the room, Eleanor believes that she is clutching Theodora’s hand in the darkness, but she soon discovers that it was not Theodora’s hand but empty space. Later, following a quiet moment between Luke and Eleanor, Theodora chides Eleanor about Luke, telling her that she is making a fool of herself with him. When they go for a walk, they find their path has diverged from reality. Hearing ghostly laughter, they flee back to the house.

Eventually, Dr. Montague’s wife arrives with an assistant, who helps in an attempt to use automatic writing in order to identify the spirits that haunt Hill House. The results are inconsistent with historical fact. The hauntings continue until Eleanor slips from her room while everyone is asleep. She climbs a rickety staircase, perhaps on her way to duplicating the companion’s death. Luke rescues her, but Dr. Montague concludes that Hill House is having a negative impact on Eleanor and that she must leave. Just as she may have caused the rain of stones as a child, the poltergeist-type events at Hill House may be the result of her psychic abilities.

As she prepares to depart in the same car in which she made her bid for freedom from her sister, Eleanor feels that she cannot leave Hill House. Already, she has been contemplating a children’s song that essentially likens the house to a lover. Gleefully, she speeds away in the car, feeling that she is at last acting on her own. In the moments before she steers the car into a tree, she wonders why these events are happening and why the others do not stop her. She is finally free, but she remains at Hill House as a spirit to walk alone. Her fate illustrates the difficulty of breaking free of life’s parameters: While the escape of one bondage is possible, a new type of bondage and loneliness results.

Literary Techniques

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 122

Jackson employs chillingly effective Gothic ghost story writing skills. Using the central symbol and setting of Hill House, she has its supernatural presences work on all the characters, with the most sensitive suffering the most. Readers encounter poundings, scratchings, odd presences — all the paraphernalia of the ghost story, and a few others not so typical, depicted with freshness and the right touch to frighten. The house, for example, after a while seems to focus its negative energies on Eleanor. Mysterious writing such as HELP ELEANOR COME HOME appears on the walls; as the novel progresses and the whole party undergoes one harrowing event after another, Eleanor begins to identify with the house, suddenly feeling warm and comfortable as she grows increasingly suicidal.

Social Concerns

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Through a downright frightening revitalization of the old Gothic haunted house story, Jackson develops in this novel her interests in humanity's troubled inner life and her critique of some of the negative sides of human group behavior.

Characteristically, Jackson's main emphasis is on how evil forces bear down on one individual — in this novel, this victim is Eleanor Vance, the protagonist. The premise of the novel is so arranged that all the evils and deprivations of Eleanor's life come to her through haunted Hill House, with the terrible process culminating in her suicide. Eleanor, very sensitive and very repressed as the action of the novel opens, is an extremely isolated, mother-dominated woman in her early thirties, a victim of her environment in many ways. When Dr. Montague, an anthropologist ghost-hunter, rents a summer house and recruits a party to live there and look for spirit manifestations, Eleanor volunteers, as do Theodora, a flamboyant New York interior decorator, and Luke Sanderson, a young and irresponsible relative of the property owner. The plot develops as the haunted house works on each of them and as they work on each other — all finally to the deadly detriment of Eleanor Vance.

Literary Precedents

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The wealth of previous examples of Gothic ghost stories to which Jackson adds her novel reaches back to at least Roman times. Works such as The Castle of Otranto (Walpole; 1765), The Mysteries of Udotpho (Radcliffe; 1794), to some degree Frankenstein (Shelley; 1818) and Dracula (Stoker; 1897), and scores of others form the long tradition in which Jackson is writing.

As Carol Cleveland has perceptively shown, Jackson can be seen to be reversing the contemporary formula Gothic novel: in the formula Gothic, a beautiful heroine encounters a haunted mansion, but the mystery or the ghost is unveiled and the story ends with her in the arms of a handsome rescuer. Here, a relatively plain-appearing victim loses out to the haunted mansion, with it becoming her "lover" at the end of the tale.

Adaptations

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The film The Haunting of Hill House, starring Julie Harris and Claire Bloom, premiered in 1963, and it now is often rerun on cable or network television. The Hill House of the movie was Ettington Hall, in England, a house quite close to the architecture of the house in the novel. Jackson was quite pleased with the movie, itself a commercial success — and the movie does adhere much more closely to the story line and effects of the novel than do most movie adaptations.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 117

Carpenter, Lynette. “Domestic Comedy, Black Comedy, and Real Life: Shirley Jackson, a Woman Writer.” In Faith of a (Woman) Writer, edited by Alice Kessler-Harris and William McBrien. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.

Friedman, Lenemaja. Shirley Jackson. Boston: Twayne, 1975.

Hall, Joan Wylie. Shirley Jackson: A Study of Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Hattenhauer, Darryl. Shirley Jackson’s American Gothic. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003.

Jefferson, Margo. “Shirley Jackson, Novelist or Witch?” Vogue 178, no. 7 (July, 1988): 70.

Kittredge, Mary. “The Other Side of Magic: A Few Remarks About Shirley Jackson.” In Discovering Modern Horror Fiction, edited by Darrell Schweitzer. Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont House, 1985.

Oppenheimer, Judy. Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1988.

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