Saturday, April 23, 2011

Book Review: The Haunting by Shirley Jackson

This is an older book, originally published in 1959 under the title The Haunting of Hill House. It's what I would consider to be classic horror. There's not blood dripping from the walls, no slasher elements (Jason & Freddy as examples). It's all about the psychological horror.

The plot is fairly simple, and you've seen it done a million times. But I believe that all the ones that came after The Haunting were just imitations. Even Stephen King did one with the tv movie Rose Red. Same set up, essentially, with only the details being different.

There's an old, magnificent house with a history of violence/questionable activity and death. Years after it has been last lived in, a professor/researcher with an interest in the paranormal gets a group together to go stay in the house for a night/week/month/the summer. He gathers people who have had paranormal experiences before, whether those are the uncanny ability to know things that they couldn't possibly know or a rain of stones on their house when they were a child. Typically some scion of the family that owns the house is present as well, to make certain that the visitors don't accidentally burn the place down.

And then the activity starts. The thing that makes, in my opinion, The Haunting one of the best examples of this is that there is always the question of whether or not any of the 'paranormal' activity is actually happening at all. You have the four main characters, Dr. Montague, Luke Sanderson, Theodora, and Eleanor Vance who spend most of a week in the house. They all experience the classic feelings of being watched, the knocking, banging, etc. Classic haunted house stuff. But the house, Hill House, is really just a creepy, weird place. It's built slightly off of true. None of the walls or angles are perfectly straight and it's built rather like a maze. It's drafty and very easy to get lost in. In addition, you have a group of people coming to a house that they believe to be haunted for the express purpose of trying to experience ghostly phenomenon. Nothing that happens can't be explained by simple unfamiliarity with the house, the noises of a normal house and the power of suggestion combined with the mental state of some of the people in the house.

That, I think, is what makes it such a great horror novel. The most frightening things aren't about blood and guts. Those are great for gross out factors and for making you cringe as you involuntarily imagine the pain and shock of the wounds. But for real horror, you want to play with the mind. Make people question what is real and what's not. Let their own imaginations trick them. That's what makes a scary story really scary. And I honestly think that The Haunting does that the best of anything I've ever read.

There've been two film adaptations of the book. One, in 1963, which is fairly true to the original work. There are, as always, some differences, but for the most part I think they did a really good job. The second, done in 1999, not so much. It was made to be more like a modern horror movie, where it's very definitely a ghost and there's all these fancy special effects. Fine and dandy, but you've lost the thing that makes the story excellent. And honestly, the 1999 movie just wasn't very good. In spite of having Liam Neeson in it.

"Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. 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."


  1. Have you seen the movie Session 9? I bet you'd like it - lots of eeriness but you are never sure what's causing all the creepy stuff.

  2. Sounds good! I prefer these kinds to the blood and guts.

  3. Sophia,

    I have not. But looking it up, it sure looks like something I'd enjoy. I've added it to my list. :)

  4. Susanne,

    In the book and in the original movie there is no blood and guts. Very nice. :)


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