My review of the Netflix series was balanced somewhere between liking and disliking it so the book, written by Shirley Jackson, was given to me by a friend who enjoyed the Netflix series and wanted to challenge my perception of it. I thought maybe the book would give me some better context for the show as a point of reference. However, just like with the series, my opinion on the book is also divided.
I was surprised to find that the book and series have pretty much no relation except for the same house name and same character names although they are not related this time. Hugh Crain, the father in the TV series, is spoken about as a former inhabitant of Hill House. The book mainly centres on Eleanor, one of a few people who have been involved in some kind of paranormal experience in the past, who is invited to Hill House by Dr Montague, a doctor who intends to write a book about his experiences in the house. Right from the off, the characters are aware they are staying in what is supposedly a haunted house.
The characters who share the same names, Nell, Luke, Theodora as those in the show have their back stories in the book explained but I don’t think any of it could be applied to the characters that were created for the show. It made it easier in a way as now I could simply focus on the book individually where the only common factor between book and series was a haunted house called Hill House.
First and foremost, I will say that the book is written in an engaging way. Each character has their own quirks and Jackson does a good job of setting the scene and creating an atmosphere. I am a fan of the often upbeat, irreverent conversations that take place between some of the people in Hill House. I saw comments from some people saying they disliked some of the dialogue. There is plenty of randomness in conversation which I think is more realistic when people have to spend so much time together, especially in a place as unsettling as Hill House. The conversations range from serious, to playful mocking, to fake self-promotion by characters to lighten the mood.
Now for a haunted house novel, just like the series, the main question, ‘Is it scary?’ For me personally, I didn’t find it scary or even particularly creepy. What is important to remember though is that this book was written way back in 1959, a period where films that were scary to audiences around that time wouldn’t get much of a shudder from modern day viewers. Some of the clichés are probably lost on a lot of us but we need to remember that this was probably one of the earliest mainstream books on haunted houses and so the book serves as more of a template for the haunted house stories that follow it.
I said that the TV series served better as a story of people’s psychological battles rather than as a scary story and the same applies to the book. Dr Montague explains that some people think they experience hauntings but could instead be completely dependent on how people react to places with strong magnetic fields. I feel that The Haunting of Hill House is a guessing game as to whether the house is haunted or if the people taking up residence in the house are imagining things as all the characters seem to experience the house and the events differently. The main character Eleanor with her mood swings and flights of fancy, sometimes hating everyone around her, sometimes craving their attention is a key component of the idea that the house isn’t haunted but that perhaps she is. It’s also a guessing game as to whether any of the characters’ past experiences are relevant to what they see in Hill House or what any of the signs the characters receive mean for them.
Like the TV series, there was a part of me which always wanted to carry on reading despite the flaws I’ve pointed out so I couldn’t say that the book wasn’t good although I was a bit let-down by the ending. Reading it for free was an added bonus so I’m not sure I could fully recommend it to be bought at usual price. The characters and writing are engaging but it feels like the actual plot never really gets going.