I now blog over at The Eyre Guide! This blog is an archive of my past posts.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Guest Review: The Haunting of Hill House

Posted by Charlene // Tags: , ,

Some weeks ago I mentioned to Alisa from Papercuttts that I would love to finally read something by Shirley Jackson and as she mentioned wanting to have a little blogger event about her,  I thought it was a wonderful idea and opportunity!  We decided to read a Shirley Jackson book, and each post the others' thoughts on the book on our blog, so I present to you Alisa's wonderfully thought provoking review/exploration of The Haunting of Hill House, a seminal ghost story.  A book I sadly haven't read yet, although I have seen and enjoyed the film version.  (To read my more straightforward review of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, check out Alisa's blog!)

Sherman, Cindy. Untitled Film Still #13. 1978
Sitting in an art history class that covered art from Impressionism to contemporary works, my jaw dropped when my professor announced that this photo is not actually a film still. It’s a still photo made to embody a common cultural narrative, one that we all know because we’ve seen it a million times before, or we’ve at least seen ‘something like it.’ In this photo, the artist Cindy Sherman poses as an innocent college co-ed, late at night and alone in the library, when an off- screen sound catches her attention. I believe the most remarkable part is that we know how this narrative ends: not well.

In many ways, reading Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House felt like walking through a gallery of Cindy Sherman’s Film Stills. Thoughts of ‘I’ve seen this maneuver before,’ hung like a curator’s parenthesis on every paragraph. But that’s not because Shirley Jackson employed a bunch of scary movie clich├ęs; she was the creator of them.

The Haunting of Hill House was first published in 1959, and I’m not going to say it’s the first ghost story ever told, or the first story written to send shivers down your spine, but I will claim that Jackson is the mother of the modern paranormal activity narrative. Jackson got to work, and culture weavers immediately took hold of the yarn she was spinning. Let’s look at the timeline:

1959 - The Haunting of Hill House published
1963 - The Haunting, a film based on the book, was released
1973 - Stephen King published his first supernatural horror, Carrie
1979 - Cindy Sherman makes Untitled Film Still #26 (see below)
1989 - I was born
2010 - The first of a long series of Paranormal Activity films was released
2015 - I consume all this media and declare it to be predictable because, hello, I’m looking backwards at more than 50 years of wildly popular paranormal horror stories!

Sherman, Cindy. Untitled Film Still #26. 1979

I hesitate to even tell you the basic plot of The Haunting of Hill House, but since this is actually a book review… Dr. John Montague wants to prove that paranormal activity can be scientifically traced, so he invites people with a past history of supernatural events occurring around them to spend the summer with him at a haunted mansion in a remote area. The story follows Eleanor, one of the guests, as she decides to accept the invitation, has a sinister feeling about the house from the moment she sees it, experiences increasingly terrifying unexplainable things (cold spots in the house, doors rattling, bloody messages, you know the drill), and… if you’ve seen the ending of Paranormal Activity, you understand what will happen to Eleanor.

The book is not entirely made up of supernatural plot points, however. It has several events that are not explained fully, and that lack of explanation adds to the reader’s unnerved inability to understand everything that is happening. Additionally, it touches delicately but not always subtly at Eleanor being lesbian, which I think adds an amazing layer to the discussion surrounding the story.

It’s a fast read, tightly written, and super fun to read at night when you want something spooky but not too spooky because you still want to be able to sleep. Besides that, after reading it you can easily commandeer conversations about the latest horror film and make them become book conversations instead. Who wouldn’t want that trump card in their hand?

Further Reading:
MoMA’s Interactive Online Cindy Sherman Gallery
The Art Story: Cindy Sherman biography and analysis 

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