Shirley Jackson had already written two masterpieces of psychological horror, The Bird’s Nest (1954) and The Sundial (1954), when she took on what would become generally regarded as her finest work, The Haunting of Hill House (1959). According to Jackson herself, the inspiration came from an article she read concerning a group of 19thcentury psychic researchers who rented an alleged haunted house for study. Jackson set to work on a tale whose principal antagonist would be a house with a malevolent character and purpose all its
own. Hill House serves not just as the focus of the action, but also as an influence on the characters and as a reflection of their psychological states.
Into this setting comes the character of Eleanor Vance, a quintessential Jackson protagonist, whose hold on reality is tenuous, to say the least, and who teeters on the brink of disorder and hysteria. In the memorable opening passages, Hill House is peculiar at first encounter—an architectural nightmare of asymmetry: “Every angle is slightly wrong,” and the walls are always “in one direction a fraction less than the barest possible tolerable length.” Leading the psychic investigation is Dr. John Montague, a professor of anthropology studying extra-sensory perception, who has rented Hill House during the summer months. Enlisted on his team are several persons who have demonstrated psychic gifts. Eleanor Vance, the protagonist from whose point of view the story is told, is a naive, lonely woman who in her youth encountered poltergeist phenomena.
Until Montague’s invitation, she had lived a sad and dull life caring for her invalid mother. Now, with the recent death of her mother, Eleanor sees in the Hill House venture a new beginning. Theodora, on the other hand, is bright and outgoing, as socially extroverted as Eleanor is withdrawn. Also joining the team is Luke Sanderson, a cynical ne’er-do-well whose aunt owns Hill House. Two sets of relationships develop during the investigation— relationships among the characters and relationships between the characters and Hill House itself. On the one hand, the house—surely one of the great haunted houses in all literature—seems alive and bent on violating the personal space of Eleanor and Theodora, with incessant nocturnal bangings on the walls, invisible voices in the corridors, and faces emerging from the wallpaper patterns. As for the mortal relationships, Eleanor forms an ominous identification with the house, which will lead to her downfall. Meanwhile, Theodora, a lesbian, has designs on Eleanor, while Eleanor pursues Luke (who, of course, is more interested in Theodora). Events culminate when Eleanor, obviously distraught and suicidal, is killed in an automobile accident while leaving the house. Her car collides head-on with a tree—the very spot where a former inhabitant of Hill House had died. Eleanor has gotten what she wants, the chance to remain at Hill House forever. Was she the victim of her own mental and emotional collapse, or were there indeed actual ghosts that destroyed her? Jackson implies both possibilities. The story ends, as it began, with Jackson’s description of Hill House: “Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within. . . . Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House; and whatever walked there, walked alone.”