Shirley Jackson. The Haunting of Hill House. 1959. Psychological novel of terror.
This novel’s opening lines are the among the most vivid and frightening in literature: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.”
A sadistically puritanical architect, Hugh Crain, built Hill House purposefully to disorient humans with the house’s off-center corners and ever-so-slightly slanted doorways, and now the house, stained with a tragic past, has become a thing-in-itself, disorienting and drawing in vulnerable humans until they “surrender” and subsume themselves into its malevolence.
Most vulnerable of its four visitors is Eleanor, a repressed 32-year-old “spinster” who, having devoted eleven years caring for her sick old mother, has developed a rich inner life but a weak will. Also present are Theodora (a buoyant, lesbian artist), Luke Sanderson (the good-looking, good-natured heir to the house), and Dr. Montague (an investigator of supernatural phenomena who has recruited the others to aid his researches), with Dr. Montague’s nagging wife arriving late as comic relief with her silly faith in séances.
Motifs repeat themselves, doors shut spontaneously, hallucination and somnambulism reign, and the house boils these frogs in a vision of terror and claustrophobia from Vermont’s finest novelist. Characters are trapped in tortuously labyrinthine structures; the edifice externalizes their psyches. And woe betide those who try to escape the haunted Hill House!