Hill House is an eighty year-old mansion built by a man named Hugh Crain. The story concerns four main characters: Dr. John Montague, an investigator of the supernatural; two young women, Eleanor, who is shy and resents having lived as a recluse caring dutifully for her demanding invalid mother for years, and Theodora; and a young man, Luke, the heir to Hill House, who is host to the others.
Doctor Montague hopes to find scientific evidence of the existence of the supernatural. He rents Hill House for a summer and invites several people whom he has chosen because at one time or another they have all experienced paranormal events to stay there as his guests. Of these, only Eleanor and Theodora accept. Eleanor travels to the house, where she and Theodora will live in isolation with Montague and Luke.
Hill House has two caretakers, Mr. and Mrs. Dudley, who refuse to stay near the house at night. The blunt and single-minded Mrs. Dudley is a source of some comic relief. The four overnight visitors begin to form friendships as Doctor Montague explains the building’s history, which encompasses suicide and other violent deaths.
All four of the inhabitants begin to experience strange events while in the house, including sounds and unseen spirits roaming the halls at night, strange writing on the walls and other unexplained events. Eleanor tends to experience phenomena to which the others are oblivious. At the same time, Eleanor may be losing touch with reality, and the narrative implies that at least some of what Eleanor witnesses may be products of her imagination. Another implied possibility is that Eleanor possesses a subconscious telekinetic ability which is itself the cause of many of the disturbances experienced by her and other members of the investigative team (which might indicate there is no ghost in the house at all). This possibility is suggested especially by references early in the novel to Eleanor's childhood memories about episodes of poltergeist-like phenomena that seemed to involve mainly her.
Later in the novel, the bossy and arrogant Mrs. Montague and her companion Arthur Parker, the headmaster of a boys’ school, arrive to spend a weekend at Hill House and to help investigate it. They, too, are interested in the supernatural, including séances and spirit writing. Ironically, and unlike the other four characters, they don't experience anything supernatural, although some of Mrs. Montague’s alleged spirit writings seem to communicate with Eleanor. Mrs. Montague's lack of social skills provides another source of comic relief in the novel.
Many of the hauntings that occur throughout the book are described only vaguely, or else are partly hidden from the characters themselves.
Eleanor and Theodora are in a bedroom with an unseen force trying the door, and Eleanor believes after the fact that the hand she was holding in the darkness was not Theodora’s. In one episode, as Theodora and Eleanor walk outside Hill House at night, Theodora looks behind them and screams in fear for Eleanor to run, though the book never explains what Theodora sees.
By this point in the book it is becoming clear to the characters that the house is beginning to possess Eleanor. Fearing for her safety, Doctor Montague declares that she must leave. However, Eleanor regards the house as her home, and resists. The others have to practically force her into her car, but she is then killed when her car crashes into a large oak tree on the property. The reader is left uncertain whether Eleanor was simply an emotionally disturbed woman who has committed suicide, or whether her death at Hill House has a supernatural significance.
Stephen King, in his book Danse Macabre, a non-fiction review of the horror genre, lists The Haunting of Hill House as one of the finest horror novels of the late 20th century and provides a lengthy review. According to the Wall Street Journal, the book is "now widely regarded as the greatest haunted-house story ever written." In his review column for F&SF, Damon Knight selected the novel as one of the 10 best genre books of 1959, declaring it "in a class by itself."
The book has been adapted to film twice, in 1963 and again in 1999, both times under the title The Haunting. The 1963 version is a relatively faithful adaptation and received critical praise. The 1999 version, considerably different from the novel and widely panned by critics, is an overt fantasy horror in which all the main characters are terrorized and one is killed by explicitly supernatural means.
- 1984, The Haunting of Hill House, Penguin, ISBN 0-14-007108-3
- ↑ Shirley Jackson and The Haunting of Hill House
- ↑ John J. Miller, "Chilling Fiction," Wall Street Journal, October 29, 2009
- ↑ "Books", F&SF, April 1960, p.98