Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House

It’s October and that means creepy books. And what better way to deprive myself of some sleep than picking up a Shirley Jackson book? Horror movies don’t do much for me anymore, even the ones that try to avoid all the old tropes. But books? Put a well-written scary book in my hands and I’ll jump at every shadow in my bedroom and suspect the fridge noises of being a monster intruder, trying to eat my soul or something. This was scary, okay. I actually got really scared at night. I’ll tell you the embarrassing details below.

haunting of hill houseTHE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE
by Shirley Jackson

Published by: Penguin Classics 2013 (1959),
Ebook: 246 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: 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.

First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

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Ah, Shirley Jackson! After watching all the horror movies out there, and expecting every jump scare, every evil horror twist, there are still things that make me scared enough to keep me from sleeping. The Haunting of Hill House has all the trappings of a haunted house story, fully furnished with strange noises in the night, writing on the wall, cold spots, and doors that seem to close themselves. But in Shirley Jackson’s hands the haunted house truly comes to life and shows us many more layers of horror than we expected.

Dr. Montague wishes to examine Hill House for supernatural activities. He invites, for that purpose, three other people. Luke, the future heir of Hill House, Theodora, a quirky, self-absorbed young woman, and Eleanor, shy and mysterious and with no confidence in herself. Throwing these four in an old creepy house together was a stroke of genius. The focus is definitely on the two women, with Eleanor being sort of the protagonist. I found the relationship between her and Theo both fascinating and terrifying. What starts as an instantaneous BFF vibe, with Theo declaring that they must be sisters because they get along so well, turns slowly into a darker thing. Friendship turns into admiration, which turns to jealousy, envy, disgust even. What made it so fascinating was that all these emotions were completely relatable in the beginning. It only gets strange when you realise you can’t be sure what’s true and what isn’t.

There is no first person narrator, so we’re not in any one person’s mind. But Eleanor is definitely the character we follow most closely. She is scared of Hill House from the get go, and for good reason. I shouldn’t have been as creeped out as I was. After all, this is your average, things-that-go-bump haunted house. But for some reason, I always managed to read the pleasant, daylight chapters during the day. At night, before bed, when I had some time to really get into the book, it was always night in the story as well. And we all know that’s when shit goes down. And shit did go down. A strange knocking on a door wouldn’t even merit an eye roll in a horror movie, but when you’re reading about it, and about the characters’ reactions, there’s no way to skip. You can’t close your eyes because when you open them again, you’re still at the same scary spot – you have to work through it.

I managed to read only scary bits three nights in a row – the last night I woke up my partner and made him hold my hand because I was convinced the shadows in our bedroom were moving strangely… yeah I know. But a book that can do that to me, a grown woman who absolutely does not believe in monsters under the bed or ghosts or whatever, that must be a great book. It really, really got to me. The descriptions of the scary parts were amazing, but what made it even better (or worse) was the psychological layer.

Without spoiling, something isn’t quite right with the characters. It might be the house, it might be insanity, it may be an unreliable narrator… I don’t know. The not knowing but constant suspecting, guessing, and trying to reason made this even more compelling. While Luke and Dr. Montague remained pale background characters, Theo and Eleanor are a riddle, each on her own and as a pair. Their behavior, especially in light of the mysterious events, is erratic at times and really bitchy at others. Eleanor’s past is another thing of interest. We don’t learn too much about it, but my imagination filled in the blanks with all sorts of horrors. Seriously, this is one of those cases where an active imagination is not your friend…

Despite the lack of sleep I am really glad I read this book. Shirley Jackson is a master storyteller! I don’t even mind her ambiguous, open-ish endings because with this book it’s the journey that counts.  You don’t work your way to a great reveal or twist, it’s about enjoying every page along the way. And although this book messed with my mind, I did enjoy the experience. If you’re looking for a good read for Halloween, pick this one up.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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R.I.P. Review: Shirley Jackson – We Have Always Lived in the Castle

RIP XI had planned to finally read a Shirley Jackson book for years, but every time I thought of it I wanted to save it for October. You know, for when I need Halloween reads. Then I ended up forgetting… but not this year! I finally picked this up and loved it so much that I won’t wait for October to read the next one.

we have always lived in the castleWE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE
by Shirley Jackson

Published by: Penguin, 2006 (first published 1962)
Paperback: 224 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance.

Merricat Blackwood lives on the family estate with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian. Not long ago there were seven Blackwoods—until a fatal dose of arsenic found its way into the sugar bowl one terrible night. Acquitted of the murders, Constance has returned home, where Merricat protects her from the curiousity and hostility of the villagers. Their days pass in happy isolation until cousin Charles appears. Only Merricat can see the danger, and she must act swiftly to keep Constance from his grasp.

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Wow! Just wow. Let me tell you how this went down. I curled up on the couch and decided to try the first chapter of this little book here. I stayed up very, very late (despite having to get up early for work the next day) to read as far as I possibly could. In the very first chapter, Shirley Jackson builds up so much atmosphere, such an air of mystery and paranoia, that I couldn’t have put the book down. I just didn’t have the willpower.

Mary Katherine – called Merricat by her sister – goes on one of her two weekly trips to the town, to pick up groceries. Merricat, her older sister Constance, and their uncle Julian live in a big house a bit outside the city. The story is told by Merricat, which was a stroke of genius on the author’s part and makes the book all the more intriguing to read. Very little is known about the Blackwood family, only that most of them have died, and that the remaining sisters and uncle are shunned by the town people. Merricat follows strict rituals to get through her days. In fact, she almost seems to live in her own little dream world at times. She makes up games for her trips to town, she plans how to furnish her house on the moon where she wants to live with her sister…. she’s not a very trustworthy narrator, to say the least.

In the second chapter, the bomb drops. I realise the blurb already gives this away, but I had bought this book so many years ago that I had completely forgotten that. So the Blackwood family was murdered. Poisened with arsenic in the sugar bowl. During one fateful dinner, all the family members who had used the “sugar” started dying, leaving only Constance and Merricat, as well as uncle Julian, who has only eaten a little bit of “sugar” and survived, although he is now in a wheelchair and suffers from a befuddled memory.

The question that haunted me (until I figured it out, at least) was who really killed the Blackwoods and why. Constance was suspected – as she prepared the dinner – but eventually acquitted of the charge. Could it all have been an unfortunate accident? Merricat’s narration, as I mentioned, can not always be trusted. Sometimes, she goes off on tangents and focuses more on her own little games, such as burying objects in their garden or chanting words for protecting the house, so the reader can never be sure if she leaves important clues out, if she simply doesn’t remember, or if she is knowingly deceiving us. Either way, it makes for a super thrilling read!

Apart from the mystery, I was also impressed by the characterisation. On less than 250 pages, Shirley Jackson brought these two sisters to vibrant life. Their rituals, their conversations, it all makes perfect sense. They are fully-formed human beings who have been through a tragedy and, naturally, live lives very different from the other townspeople. I also sympathised with uncle Julian, whose main purpose is to chronicle the events of that fateful night, to get his memories in order, to find all the facts and solve the mystery.

I admit that the big twist was not all that difficult to guess, but at that point, it didn’t matter. When I figured out who killed the Blackwoods, I was already too deep in the story, I cared too much about the characters – plus, a new threat to their strange yet ordered lives appears early on in the book, and Merricat has to do everything in her power to protect her sister and their home.

For such a short book, there is a surprising amount of layers to uncover. I was amazed. Without being able to put my finger on a reason, the writing felt so fluid that there never seemed to be a good spot to put the book down. Even after my most burning question was answered, I still always needed to know what happens next. I found myself actually caring about Merricat’s weird buried objects and needed them to remain intact and in their place. The sense of paranoia, even madness, totally takes over and makes reading this almost like a dream. It doesn’t have to make sense to feel real and important.

So Shirley Jackson will now be my go-to author for October or any other time I feel like a creepy book with depth and great writing. I’ll say it again: Wow!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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