Saturday, August 27, 2011

“We are from the West. The world we suggest should be of a new wild West, a sensuous, evil world, strange and…

…haunting. The path of the sun.”
~Jim Morrison

I just finished reading Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House.”

     After reading other classic “haunting” stories, and listening to the hype of S.J.’s novel I reluctantly have to say I was a bit let down with this one when I was done.

     What I can appreciate is that it was perhaps a novelty of its time (I mean 1959 was three years before I was born), and the approach may have been unique in the horror/ghost world, but the story didn’t grip me.

     The first major distraction for me, as I read along, was the never-ending use of adverbs throughout the faded pages (I have an old copy).  I’ve mentioned this same distraction in an earlier blog with another older novel, but it is interesting to note how in many novels written betweem the 50’s to 80’s have “ly” words sprinkled liberally throughout them (kinda like salt on my French fries …and I adore salt and vinegar on my fries).  Today, a modern writer would get their pen or keyboard fingers smacked or hacked for doing such a thing.  And so I had to suppress my intense desire to start editing the text as I read.

     The second thing that bothered me is that I didn’t feel the least ‘involved’ in the story.  Neither Eleanor, nor Theodora, were particularly likeable characters. Actually, there wasn’t a human character I liked much at all. The only ‘being’ I liked (if one can call it such), was Hill House itself, if just for the descriptions and the ‘feel’ of it.  A couple of my favorite early descriptions were these…

“It was a house without kindness…” (So simple, yet evocative.)


“Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay until it was destroyed.” (This line sets up the rules of the novel in many ways, and lets the reader understand what kind of damnable building the characters will be dealing with.)

     Despite some lovely verbiage interspersed throughout, I wanted much more in the descriptions. I also thought at one point, if I read another line that described something as “dark” (a completely overused adjective) I was going to pull out a fingernail (someone else’s, not mine).  Another thing that bugged me was the repetition of certain lines . I really didn’t want to read another, “Journey’s end in lovers meeting.”  I felt there was little point in the extensive repetition.

     What I did like was some of the wording Shirley Jackson used in the novel. I found myself underlining passages and words that caught my eye and described something I may previously have had a ‘lack of the right word’ for. For example:

“…atavistic turn in the pit of her stomach...”
“…an act of moral strength…”
“…suspicious sullenness of her face…”
“…malicious petulance…”
“…arranged with unlovely exactness…”
“…her face was thin with anger…”
“…dim convoluted patterns…”

     I have a habit, when I read, of writing down words and phrases I like from novels, and keeping them in a notebook.  Anywhere from one word to three or five strung together.  I read over my notebook when I’m writing, and every now and then the perfect description will jump out at me.  One of my favorite descriptions is “gravestone gray.”  I’ve used that a few times.

     To finish with a brief summary of this novel, I felt it was okay, but it didn’t captivate me. I expected more, and maybe I’m just a poor reader and don’t recognize the brilliance of the story, but nothing about it really “wow’d” me.  My general feeling, when I got to the last page, was that at least I was at THIS journey’s end…and I was overwhelmed with relief.



  1. I agree that neither Eleanor nor Theo were good characters--on their own. I saw them as foils, each one half of the other, and opposites. Together they made a wholly messed up person. As for the adverbs, didn't bother me, but that's a taste thing, I suppose.

    What did you think of the way Jackson personified the house? You said it was your favorite character. Maybe that's why. I think the way she did that was the single strongest part of the novel.

  2. I thinks SJ did an OK job, but even though the house was my favorite character, in the whole scheme of things the story didn't do a lot for me. But the personification of the house was probably the strongest suit in the deck. ~Q

  3. I have to admit, when I first read this book, it bored the hell out of me. But it was the characterization of the house itself that made me assign it. You got out of the reading what I hoped you would. And I really like your perspective on things. Thanks!


  4. I doubt you're a poor reader! Like Gary Braunbeck says in To Each Their Darkness, our individual reactions to horror are very subjective and personal. I loved the book, but I think that's from having grown up in the 80s/early 90s and being inundated with crappy slasher films and one book after another about serial killers. The adverbs bugged me too, as well as the overwrought, melodramatic dialogue.

  5. I don't think your opinions are unfounded at all, and I appreciated that you paid attention to the actual writing itself, not just the story.

    I am new to writing fiction, and I never knew adverbs were the enemy until starting school at Seton Hill. With everything I've learned (and continue to learn) from the program, it has changed the way I look at all writing. I can't read the way I used to, ever again.

    I'm glad someone else objected to the billions of adverbs. I also disliked the novel's "catchphrases." Journey's end blah blah blah barf.

    Good readers are good writers and vice-versa. I like that the details are important to you, and that you're a close reader. You picked up on a lot of things I didn't. Thanks for an enlightening post!

  6. I'm probably not neutral when it comes to critiquing Jackson's work. I fell in love with We Have Always Lived in the Castle, when I was twelve. I still teach "The Lottery," much to my students' despair. I do, however, have to agree with you - none of the characters are particularly likeable. The only redeeming value of Eleanor is that her life has been so wretched, mainly due to her own inability to set boundaries, that despite her shortcomings, I feel sorry for her - and invested in her ending. The other characters could be consumed by the house, for all I care.

    Also, I had to re-read a few pages to catch all the adverbs - (my fingers were kinda' itchy, too). Enjoyed your post - as always - you catch so many things that I miss during my readings.

  7. On reflection, I find Hill House boring. Great intro, though.