Sunday, 16 January 2011

The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson has been my first foray into using Manchester's Audiobook Library. The trouble with wanting to get back into doing some knitting is that I can only watch mindless telly while I knit, even watching films can be distracting, I just keep missing bits because I look away at the vital moment or need to count stitches. We do have quite a collection of books on tape but I have heard them all countless times on long car journeys, so this could become my new source of entertainment, though their collection is currently quite limited.

I read 'We have always lived in the castle' back in 2009 after reading an article about Jackson and although this book has apparently been made into quite a notorious horror film I thought I would give it a try. It is a very different experience listening to a story read for you and I confess I often failed to pause it when I left the room for a moment so I did miss brief parts but it was a very haunting book. It reminded me of the technique I noticed in 'Woman in Black' where the tension is build up and then withdrawn and then built up again, allowing you to pause, recover and catch your breath in between the scary bits.

This story follows a group of disparate people who have been gathered together for the specific purpose of understanding the nature of this supposedly 'haunted' house, almost like a pseudo-scientific experiment, by Dr Montague. Although it is told from an outside point of view it focusses on Eleanor and we get to hear her thoughts about and reactions to the events and the other characters in a much more intimate way than any of the other participants. The dark, brooding atmosphere is beautifully drawn, both in the description of the house and in the relationships between the characters. A kind of nervous excitement seems to dominate the gathering, their fear often tempered by a mild kind of hysteria. The sullen and monosyllabic Mrs Dudley is their housekeeper, and she often seems more malevolent than the house itself, with her strictly timed meal routines and her insistence on closing doors and curtains and the efficient replacement of the crockery, and yet near the end we have this brief scene where Mrs Montague is helping her wash up and they are having a friendly chat followed by a cup of tea, it made it feel like she was putting on an act for effect. But the story is dominated by Eleanor, a young woman who has run away from her sister, having only recently been freed from the chore of caring for an elderly and demanding mother. She forms a bond of trust and friendship with Theadora, who is beautiful and vibrant, and then a very short-lived romantic attachment to Luke, the only young man in the group. But as the house works its evil she becomes more and more paranoid and preoccupied, we hear her thoughts saying one thing while she says something completely different to the people around her, and she appears to be the focus of the paranormal events that are happening. I found myself becoming more suspicious along with her of the motives and behaviour of the others. In a way that was what felt clever about the way it was written, knowing only what she was thinking made you take her side and not trust the others. The whole group becomes subject to a series of night-time disturbances but for Eleanor they seem to be taking place both inside her head as well as out in the real world. The tension builds to a very dramatic climax, which there is no way I am going to give away.

I listened to it sitting in my bright cosy bedroom with my knitting in progress, I'm sure a late night, dimly lit session would be a whole different experience. There is nothing gory or even physically threatening in the story, it is very much a psychological thriller that says as much about people's fears and insecurities as it does about ghosts. An excellent story, slightly dated at some moments by the social attitudes expressed but not anything that detracts from the subtleties of the writing. Still no desire to see the film however:-)


  1. I want to see the film now - I think I did years ago - can't remember!! 1960's film called the Haunting? I think this is the same, not sure! Anyway!! I've never tried audio books - I always wanted to try - so this seems like a good start!! I think ghost stories read aloud would be fun!! thanks for the review! Take care

  2. I also don't want to see the film, but mainly because I can't see how the film would even work -- so much of the tension of the book is created by the reader's gradual realization that Eleanor isn't trustworthy anymore.


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