An anthropologist hoping to prove the existence of the supernatural gathers a small group in a haunted New England mansion, where they hope to observe the strange goings on at the infamous Hill House. Among this group of eccentric characters is an impressionable young woman on the brink of sanity, who seems especially in tune with the house. Or is the house in tune with her? Just one night into the project, doors are banging, strange voices are mumbling, and unseen children are crying in the night.
The Haunting of Hill House reads like a stylized episode of TV’s Night Gallery. Characters and their relationships are quickly drawn, the dialogue is clipped and almost unnatural in its patter, and the story moves along at a rapid pace. Shirley Jackson is best known for her short story The Lottery, and this slender volume of horror fiction is probably best known as the source material for the 1963 movie The Haunting, and its crappy 1999 remake of the same name.
I have fond memories of watching The Haunting on late-night TV when I was in high school and finding it genuinely scary, so I had high expectations for this book. Alas, I was disappointed. The episodes when Hill House is really doing its thing, scaring the inhabitants and the reader both, were well written and effective; however, the rest of the book was flat in comparison. The writing style seems dated, and not in that charming, Nathaniel Hawthorne sort of way. I also had a hard time relating to any of the characters in the story.
My book club chose The Haunting of Hill House as our Halloween-themed selection and it led to a decent enough discussion, despite the fact that no one really loved the book. Following our discussion, we watched the 1963 black-and-white version of The Haunting, which everyone seemed to enjoy more than reading the book. Unfortunately, the movie wasn’t as scary as I remembered it, which I attribute to the fact that the first time I saw the film, I had no idea what was going to happen next. It was interesting to note that a minor character we all felt didn’t work well in the book was altered to better effect in the movie.
So, short story long — I’d recommend the movie over the book. [**]