In honor of Halloween I decided to read the classic haunted house story The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. I found this book on many “Scariest Books all Time” lists so I decided to give it a shot. Full disclosure before I move on, thus far the two scariest books I’ve ever read were The Shining by Stephen King (for obvious reasons, REDRUM!) and The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty. Admittedly, the latter isn’t a horror novel but watching asibling descend into mental illness and being powerless to stop it was terrifying to me. Maybe that one just hit a little to close to home. Nevertheless, both are terrific books and are highly recommended.
The other point I should probably mention is that the movie The Exorcist did not frighten me in the least. Again, maybe it was because the movie was billed as “the scariest of all time” that I expected more. Frankly, I just found the movie silly. I kept waiting to be scared but it never quite materialized. The little girls’ head turning 360 degrees was creepy certainly but scary? Not so much. A movie that did scare me? Manhunter (1986). For those of you who aren’t familiar I believe this was the first movie to feature the Hannibal Lecter character (pre Anthony Hopkins). I couldn’t get that movie out of my head for weeks. You have been warned – watch with caution!
I mention all of this to provide a bit of context. Meaning, I’m not easily scared. At least, not in the conventional sense. The Haunting of Hill House was no exception. The book is very well written, steeping with dark, opressive atmosphere and containing evocative descriptions of the setting and characters. A feeling of dread and claustrophobia persists throughout the story, though you are not always sure as to why. Is Hill House really haunted or is it simply and old isolated home built with some architectural anomalies that manifest as paranormal activity? Early on I thought I knew the answer but the novel cleverly turns the story on its head at around the midpoint. Here is where I started to question my assumptions about all that I had read to that point. This is also where the book really came alive for me. I couldn’t put it down until I came to the end, an end that was brilliant in it’s execution and utterly inevitable given all that had preceded it.
I’m not sure I would have picked up this book in the bright light of summer but I have to say it was the perfect story in which to immerse myself in honor of Halloween. If you’ve seen that horrible movie The Haunting (1999) do not let that deter you from reading the book. The book is a completely different entity. Once you realize that Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson and even Liam Neeson have no business in this particular story you can enjoy The Haunting of Hill House for what it is – a spooky and surprising psychological drama. Interestingly, Lili Taylor was well cast as protagonist Eleanor (but that’s pretty much the only good thing I can say about the movie). If you’ve never seen the movie all the better.
PS: My favorite character in the book was Planchette!