Brad's Reviews > The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Jun 02, 2010

liked it
bookshelves: horror, classic
Read in May, 2009

Rarely have my feelings about a book been so jumbled.

I hated all The Haunting of Hill House's characters so much that I couldn't stand reading the book, yet Shirley Jackson's need to make us hate all the characters in the book, and her success impressed the hell out of me.

But then I wondered if the reason I hated the characters was not genuinely because of the book, but because of the crappy film version from 1999. Jan de Bont's remake, The Haunting, was abysmal, and the performances of its four stars were some of the worst of their careers (especially Lili Taylor, whose performance as Eleanor was the most insufferable of the lot).

The film was so bad, in fact, that I'd put it completely out of my mind until I picked up The Haunting of Hill House.

But as soon as I picked up the book Jackson's characters became the actors for me. Liam Neeson was all I could see when I was reading Dr. Montague, despite the fact that Jackson's vivid descriptions of the Doctor don't match the Irishman in any way. And I had the same problems with Owen Wilson (Luke), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Theo) and Lili Taylor (Eleanor). Their performances were the characters for me, and I worried that I wasn't giving Jackson's characters a fair shake.

This hardly ever happens to me. I watch movies all the time -- sometimes before I read the books, although I try to avoid this -- and I've nearly always been able to avoid the actors' performances spilling into my fanciful renderings of the characters. This time, though, all four horrible performances stuck.

So was my disdain for the characters really Shirley Jackson's doing, or was it my personal issues with a bad rendering of her work? I hope it was the former rather than the latter, but I remain unsure.

I also ran into problems with my expectations of the story, and these seem to have been miraculously untainted by the movie. Even odder than my retention of the movie characters was my total lack of recall for the story itself.

Jackson kept me guessing throughout The Haunting of Hill House, but right up until the end I felt like all these false leads and potential "realities" were missed opportunities. She frustrated me again and again. I wondered if the hauntings were being staged as a psychological experiment by Montague, then I hoped that was the case, then it wasn't. I wondered if Eleanor was there at all, then I hoped she wasn't, then she was. I wondered if someone was already a ghost, then I hoped she was, then she wasn't. And so it went: Jackson kept setting me up with the story's potential then knocking me down with an overturning of my expectations.

Then I reached the end of the story, and Chapter Nine actually redeemed the tale for me. It didn't make The Haunting of Hill House one of my all time favourites, but it did bring me closer to believing that Shirley Jackson really expected us to loathe her characters, that she even depended on it, and that the control she exerted over her work was as deliberate and delicate as a surgeon repairing ligaments.

I don't love Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, but I do respect what it was trying to do. Even if I still wish she'd done something else.

Did I mention that I didn't find this remotely scary?
46 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Haunting of Hill House.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

02/01 marked as: read

Comments <span class="mediumText">(showing 1-26)</span>

dateUp arrow    newest »

Brooke That's funny that the movie sort of messed it up for both of us. I wish I could erase the movie from my mind and approach this with a new outlook.

message 25: by Brad (last edited May 19, 2009 06:04AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Brad SO it wasn't only me! I wonder how such a poor film could have such incredible power? There are other films far stronger, with far more quality, that don't come close to even denting the book. Very strange. But I suppose it is the movie's very crapness that makes it so shaping.

Helen (Helena/Nell) I have never seen the film. Yeay! However, I have read the book and I found it, like most of Shirley Jackson, fascinating. She never does quite what I expect and doesn't fit easily into a genre, even horror.

However, it is some years since I read and I would need to go back to be more precise. It is one of my adult son's favourite books of all time. I must get him to tell me why.

Kelly H. (Maybedog) I was disapointed in the 1999 film, too, especially since so many of my favorite actors were in it. I have a hard time getting the movie out of my mind when I read a book afterward. I try very hard to do it the other way around. I didn't realize it was a Shirley Jackson novel, though, so now I'm torn. Do I risk it and read it anyway? Since I know the ending it's not going to have the same mmph.

message 22: by [deleted user] (last edited Jun 02, 2010 07:45AM) (new)

Going to that crappy movie was one of the finest movie-going experiences of my short life - and I'm not being coy. I never had AC growing up or well into my adult life, so when it would get terrible hot in the summer - 100F* or above - I was trained by my folks to flee to the movies, any movies. I did this with Hill House, just walking in and taking the first movie that was starting. The theater was totally packed - I think a lot of Minnesotans had this idea - and just completely loud and responsive in a way you don't usually see around here. Half the theater was reacting straight - jumping at the cheap scares, etc - and the other half was howling with laughter at all the wrong times, rooting for the deaths of everyone, etc. It was brilliant. Sigh.

Um, isn't there an earlier film? 50s? Googling...
No, 1963. I liked it as a kid, and thought it was scary, but I was a kid.

Oh, and I'm on some sort of link rampage, so here's one of those lists that everyone likes to fight about, this time on the Gothic novel. Hill House is on the list.

*I don't know what this is in those communist metrics everyone else in the world uses, but it's very hot.

message 21: by Brad (new) - rated it 3 stars

Brad That link to Guardian was what made me come back and read this review of mine. And then I found some grammar errors that needed correcting, so I fixed things up. That's a groovy little Gothic list.

I still use theatres for AC.

message 20: by [deleted user] (new)

It is a groovy list, although I've only read maybe 1.75 of the books on it.

message 19: by Melody (new)

Melody But The Haunting (1963) was wonderful.
I was scared, scared scared.

message 18: by Brad (new) - rated it 3 stars

Brad I've not seen that one. I'm going to get it to scare the pants off my horror loving daughter.

Miriam I don't know if you've read other Jackson, but I feel like she usually means for the reader to not like the characters, or at least be made uneasy by them in some way.

message 16: by Brad (last edited Jun 02, 2010 11:04AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Brad I have, and I think you're right. And I love that intellectually, but it can be an emotional frustration. Still, I've never really bought the idea that I have to like someone in the story to like the story, so long as the characters are rich enough in their unlikability to make them interesting. Maybe that's how we should think of characters: shoot for interesting over likable. Jackson certainly achieves the former.

message 15: by Melody (new)

Melody How old is your horror loving daughter? My horror loving daughter likes those dreaded slasher things (Saw and the like). This is black and white - with cheesy effects - and it's just suspenseful and psychologically titillating. I remember I saw it at a student sponsored showing while I was in college and had to drive by myself somewhere right after seeing it. I was jumpy and just felt ... spooky and eerie.

message 14: by Brad (new) - rated it 3 stars

Brad My horror loving daughter is 6, so her idea of horror movies so far are "black and white -- with cheesy effects." She's watched Lon Chaney Jr's Wolf Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dracula with Legosi and Whale's version of Frankenstein. She's also into Tim Burton produced stop motion stuff. No Saw yet. Sounds like The Haunting may still be too scary for Brontë, though.

Miriam horror movies so far are "black and white -- with cheesy effects." She's watched Lon Chaney Jr's Wolf Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dracula with Legosi and Whale's version of Frankenstein.

That was my idea of a good saturday afternoon in middle school...

Michael Wow, I watched the movie before reading the book, and while reading it, didn't even REALIZE I'd seen the movie. It wasn't until just know when I googled it that I remembered having seen it. Perhaps it's because I've seen such a ridiculous number of bad horror movies that I still can't remember if the movie ended the same way as the book.

message 11: by Lisa (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lisa What Michael said. I saw that movie, and when I was reading this book I was unaware that that awful movie was based on this book. That said, I didn't especially like the book, but it was far more interesting than the movie.

colleen the fabulous fabulaphile Unpopular though it may be, let me say that I actually quite like the movie. Oh, it's not scary in the least, but I found it interesting and entertaining.

That said - I also detested the characters while reading the book. And I didn't hate them in the movie. So I don't think it's your dislike of the movie which made the characters so unlikable.

message 9: by Julia (new)

Julia I recommend watching the original black & white version of the movie made in the early 1960s. Julie Harris & Clair Bloom are just 2 of the very fine actors in this version.

Sarah The 1963 film adaptation is much better than the recent one. There's some really chilling camera work that adds to the atmosphere of the story. The constant voice-overs were very distracting, however. This was the first Shirley Jackson book I read and I absolutely adore it.

Brad I've never seen that version, Sarah. I really should watch it.

S.A. Oh please.

Brad Aarrgh, it was on TCM over the Halloween season and I missed it!

Julie You should watch the original movie done. It was great! Julie Harris played Eleanor and she was great!

Brad I DVR'd it from TCM not that long ago, and then ended up deleting it to make space for That Touch of Mink for my daughter before I got to it. It's going to have to wait a little longer, Julie.

Julie Of course, it is dated but it scared the me to death when I was a kid and it's still pretty scary especially if you like TCM.

Brad We love TCM around her, and my kids are huge fans of the classic B&W horrors, like Creature from the Black Lagoon, Frankenstein and Bride of, and we even watch a ton of old Twilight Zones, so we'd all love it, I'm sure.

back to top