Friday, October 9, 2009

Review: The Haunting of Hill House

Let me start off this review by saying how much I admire Shirley Jackson's short story, "The Lottery." I was first introduced to this story in 7th grade when each English class watched the 20 minute movie. I was absolutely stunned by the ending and it continues to haunt me to this day. Last year I decided to use this short story as a teaching tool in my 12th grade English class (no, it isn't British Literature, but it is a GREAT story and most students have not read it). I always start off asking the students to try to predict the nature of the book by reading the title. Most say that it will be a happy story that involves winning money in a lottery. We then read the story together paragraph by paragraph. I want students to learn what it means to "read closely" and at the end of nearly every paragraph I stop and we discuss what we have learned - and how the author chose to tell the reader that information. I instruct students to pay close to attention to how the mood subtly shifts from a happy summer day filled with sunshine and laughter, to the more solemn lottery drawing, to the horrific ending. I ask students to pay close to attention to language (the lottery is referred to an annual event - a tradition - a ritual) and how the use of that language contributes to the mood shift. The end of the story always evokes the same disbelieving response in my students as I had when I first watched the movie over 30 years ago.

If you have not had the opportunity to read the Lottery, I strongly encourage you to do so. It will take you less than half an hour, and I guarantee it will stay with you for a long time afterwards.

I review that short story to preface my review of her longer work, The Haunting of Hill House. I came to this book with expectations, and often times that results in disappointment. I had read that this book was one of the greatest horror stories of all time - and I had prepared myself to be scared stiff. I made sure that I read the book when other family members were home (I tend to imagine noises when I am alone), and I made sure that I read the book early in the evening, so as not to induce nightmares. Now don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and it certainly kept me in suspense --- but I am not sure that I would consider it "the greatest horror story."

The story focuses on 4 main characters. Dr. Montague is conducting research into the supernatural and has rented Hill House for the summer because of its haunting reputation. He has invited several others who have experienced dealings with the supernatural, but only two answer his letter: Eleanor Vance, a spinster woman who took care of her ill mother until her recent death, and Theodora, a somewhat happy-go-lucky woman who seems to take life as it comes and enjoys a good time. Luke S rounds out the group, as he is the future heir of Hill House and is mandated to stay with them while they conduct their research.

I think my issue with this book is that I had a difficult time understanding the relationship that develops between Eleanor and Theodora. At times they appear to be the best of friends, almost bordering on the romantic, and at other times they have no patience for one another, hurling spiteful comments that cut to the quick. It becomes evident fairly early on that Eleanor is an unreliable character, and the reader often questions whether she is mentally stable. This certainly adds to the suspense of the story, and seems to resolve itself in the final scene. I almost want to go back and re-read the story, focusing on how this relationship is developed and perhaps that would help eliminate some of this confusion.

Hill House is as much a character in this story as a setting for the novel. I understand that there have been two movies made from this book, and I would love to see how the directors visually represented the house in the films. It is described as the quintessential "haunted" house, complete with rooms at odd angles, doors that automatically close, winding twisting pathways that confuse the inhabitants, and inexplicable noises in the night. I am quite certain that if I saw the film, I would be scared out of my wits. I am sure that the proper sound effects, lighting, and camera angles can add detail to the horror aspect of the story.

I liked the book. I would read again. I am glad that I picked it up and have read it for the RIP challenge. I think my only issue with this story is that I am not sure that I would categorize it as "horror" --- but that is probably just me. It was highly suspenseful, very well written, characters were well developed, and the abrupt ending definitely added to the thrilling nature of the story. In reading other reviews of this book, I noticed that several compared the story to Henry James's, "The Turn of the Screw. " I would totally agree with that assessment. I did not find this story to be "horrific" either, but I did find it highly suspenseful with an unusual twist ending.

16 comments:

Kaye said...

Your students are so very fortunate to have such a wonderful teacher. The Lottery is now a story I am going to track down. It sounds great.

Have a good weekend and happy reading.

Paperback Reader said...

"The Lottery" would make a perfect story for close reading and I would have loved to have encountered and studied it in a classroom setting.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle does not scare one stiff either but it does leave you feeling uneasy and the build-up of tension and suspense is masterful.

I may take part in the read-a-thon in a couple of weeks and read The Haunting of Hill House then (perhaps not in the early hours).

Beth F said...

I have to say I'm grateful I didn't have to read or view horror in school. It's just too scary for me. I did read Turn of the Screw way back in junior high or high school. I think I liked it.

JoAnn said...

I like suspense, but try to avoid horror. This sounds like it fits that description nicely! We Have Always Lived In the Castle is on top of the tbr pile right now.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Hey, to me, the scarier the better. Unfortunately, I don't find much that scares me. The plot sort of reminds me of The Seance by John Harwood, which I just finished. Anyway, this book is on my list, and of course now I'm going to have to read The Lottery as well. I can only imagine what that is about...

Diane said...

I loved reading this post, as I just bought The Haunting of Hill House. I need to check out Lottery...thanks Molly

Belle said...

"The Lottery" is one of my favorite short stories. I really enjoyed The Haunting of Hill House, too - it's definitely very suspenseful. I've got We Have Always Lived in the Castle in my tbr right now (actually posted about that today!)

Ti said...

The book had some creepy goodness to it but I wasn't wowed by it.

Gwendolyn B. said...

First let me say that I love your approach to teaching with THE LOTTERY. I think most of your students will remember the experience for the rest of their lives and appreciate your guiding them through it.
Secondly, I LOVE Shirley Jackson. I think THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE must have had quite an impact when it was first published, and was probably trailblazing. It's been "copied" so much over the years that now the story seems diluted. Personally, I preferred WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE. If you haven't read that one yet, I would certainly recommend it. It will be evident, tho, that many authors and screenwriters have stood on the giant's shoulders during the last few decades.

Jenners said...

I'm sure your students get quite a shock to expect a book about a lottery when reading "Lottery." Makes me laugh.

And wasn't "The Haunting of Hill House" made into a schlocky horror film? Or am I mixed up? And I don't do well with scary books and being alone either!

Amy said...

I love the Lottery as well!! Did you ever watch the lame Lifetime movie?

I want to read this book, but it's good to know that I should keep my expectations in check!

ds said...

I have a love/hate relationship with "The Lottery." I love it because it is about the most perfect short story ever written; I hate it because of what happens. Every time I read it, Shirley Jackson socks me in the gut. The woman knew what she was doing. I need to read The Haunting of Hill House, thanks for the reminder. Your students are very lucky!

fantaghiro23 said...

Reading your post is fortuitous for me. We just finished taking up The Lottery in my juniors' English class. The students were creeped out by the ending, too, and we also talked about how tradition can be carried out blindly. However, I didn't know that there was a 20minute movie. Will post this on our class website. Thanks!

By the way, I'm a big fan of Shirley Jackson, too. I haven't read the Haunting of Hill House, but I have seen the original movie. I count it as one of the best horror films I've seen because it was such a triumph of mood.

lilly said...

I haven't read either of the books yet. I will get to them one day when my TBR pile looks more like an anthill and not a mountain.
But one thing I have to say, I always am wary of the books or movies or anything that gets to be called "the greatest" something. I somehow approach it with a grain of salt.

J.T. Oldfield said...

I love the Lottery! I think we read it in 10th grade...at least, I remember seeing the video. :)

Rebecca :) said...

I have been meaning to read The Haunting of Hill House. I had not heard of The Lottery. You make both sound amazing! Great review, Molly!

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