The Haunting of Hill House is often touted as the greatest ghost story of the 20th century and has seen several incarnations, including the play adaptation, which I was fortunate enough to see at a community theater I once did costumes for. Thus, I knew the story going into this book and was ready for a spooky good time.
Eleanor Vance has spent her adult life caring for her invalid mother, but when said mother finally passes away, Eleanor sees her chance for freedom. She soon receives an invitation to partake in a study of psychological phenomena at the isolated Hill House. Along with two other participants and an eccentric doctor, Eleanor visits Hill House and learns its troubled history. Strange things begin happening around the house, and Eleanor soon finds herself trapped in a strange psychic spell, though it is unknown whether that is because of the house, or Eleanor’s own troubled mind…
Surprisingly, despite my love of horror, I have not read that many ghost stories. Personally, I don’t find them that scary. They are fun and suspenseful, for sure, but the supernatural does not hold that much terror for me. Now, if a supernatural story is centered around human characters whose emotions and experiences are scary, then we might have something. But deriving terror from the ghost itself does not do enough for me. Anyway.
We find a relatable and tender main character in Eleanor. She has spent so long caring for others that when she finds herself with nothing but time in Hill House, it’s extremely liberating for her. Since she has often played a secondary role in her own life, she is prone to fantasizing about strange, mythical places where she is a princess or lady, often intoning the phrase “journey’s end and lovers meet” during these fantasies. One might say she is a child trapped in an adult body, with the same curiosity and inclination toward pretending.
While the other characters find Hill House creepy and unnerving, Eleanor finds its huge grounds and nearby creek ripe with enchantment. She talks to her roommate Theo about finding fairies by the water or taking picnics on the grounds. We the audience find Hill House strange, but we can see how perhaps Eleanor may find it magical, given her inclination toward fantasy.
And thus, we find the source of this book’s brilliance.
Hill House is only reputed to be haunted, and as far as I remember, we don’t actually see any ghosts. You hear the laughter of children and strange writing appearing on the walls, but the ghosts never show themselves. And so, we do not know whether the ghosts are real, or a way of Eleanor’s mind acclimating to the house’s atmosphere.
The other characters think Eleanor may be responsible for the strange activity since she is singled out by the “ghosts.” But again, we are just not sure, since Eleanor does not remember writing the stuff on the wall, and her mental state may be fractured to begin with.
Overall, it is a compelling story, with a good atmosphere and interesting characters. I’ve read scarier books, but I love how it doesn’t go too big, with no huge climax or confrontation. It’s just a group of characters doing their thing in a supposedly haunted house, while one of them may be going crazy.
Is it the greatest ghost story of the 20th century? I don’t know, I don’t have the knowledge to speak on that. But is it a story worth listening to? I’d be dead wrong to say no, pun intended.