Reviewing Horror Novels:
Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson & NOS4A2 by Joe Hill
I was working on an interview post for Meghan about Halloween, and that got me in the mood for a good horror story. Since I listen to way more audiobooks than I can afford to buy, I often rely on my library to supplement my Audible diet. When I went searching on my library’s audiobook app, I stumbled across The Hunting of Hill House. While I’m familiar with Shirley Jackson and the story on which a terrible 90s movie and a pretty good recent Netflix series is based, I’ve never actually read the source material. So, I decided it was time to remedy that.
I’m glad I did. Hill House is clearly a foundational story in the horror genre, particularly the hunted house sub-genre. You can see Jackson’s inspiration in so many stories that came after hers. Stephen King openly admits Hill House was a big influence on The Shining, for example. Eleanor and Danny Torrance have a lot in common. So does Hill House and Overlook Hotel.
If you know nothing about The Haunting of Hill House, here’s a blurb: “It is the story of four [paranormal activity] seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile [abandoned mansion] called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, the lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.”
The main protagonist is Eleanor, who has an extremely sensitive connection to the house. Jackson, however, leaves what the house actually is, and what the haunting actually is, very much up to the reader’s interpretation. Read carefully from here on… my discussion will contain spoilers. For me the fact that Jackson made a point of mentioning Eleanor’s childhood “poltergeist” experience (an avalanche of rocks rained on Eleanor’s childhood home without any clear source or reason) meant it was Jackson‘s intent to show that the “haunting” at Hill House wasn’t entirely inside Eleanor’s head. Plus the book clearly states the other members of the party were witnesses the haunting events (beating on doors, vandalism of Theodora’s clothes, writing on the walls in what seemed like blood, a frigid cold presence that sucked the warmth out of rooms). Whether Eleanor is the poltergeist herself–she might be some kind of telekinetic–or is highly psychically sensitive to those kinds of energies is what’s so wonderfully ambiguous in this story. Ambiguousness plays a big part in heightening the story’s sensations of terror and dread, and it’s often my most favorite tool in horror.
I decided that, for me, I believe Eleanor was psychically sensitive to the energies of the house, which had a history and reputation for malevolence long before Eleanor’s arrival. Those energies manipulated her specifically because of her vulnerabilities and sensitivities.
The arrival of Ms. Montague (Dr. Montague’s wife and a self-proclaimed spiritualist/psychic) seemed to underscore this—she was the embodiment of dramatic irony. She was so insistent that the others in the party had no psychic ability. However, when she worked with “planchette” (as in a Ouija Board planchette), all the information Ms. Montague received from it had to do with “Nell” i.e, Eleanor, which proved how physically sensitive Eleanor was and how obtuse Ms. Montague actually was even, although she believed the opposite about herself. This irony was one of my favorite devices in the story. The results from Ms. Montague’s consultations with “planchette” were yet another clue that the things happening to Eleanor were not completely in Eleanor’s head. Yet, it also served to further muddy how much of what happened in the house was Eleanor’s doing and how much was the house itself.
In the end, it’s my belief that (BIG SPOILER) Eleanor’s spirit becomes a part of the house’s energies along with those of the others who died there before her. I think before her death, Eleanor was already starting to become a part of the house’s sentience, as if the house were absorbing her and vice versa. The house is basically an amalgam of all the people it victimized over the years.
I can’t believe it took me this many years to finally get around to reading this book, but I’m glad I did. It’s such a cultural touchpoint, I think it should be expected reading as much as Dickens or Shakespeare or Faulkner or Steinbeck, etc. It’s also interesting in its themes of female sexuality. It’s definitely ahead of it’s time and such a masterful portrayal of the “human condition”. I’ll fight anyone who says genre fiction can’t represent the human experience as well as literary fiction. Haunting of Hill House should prove all genre naysayers wrong.
After finishing Hill House, which was indeed very literary in tone and style, I was still in the horror mood, so I went back to my library app and found N0S4A2, which has showed up repeatedly over the years in lists of “best horror novels”. The book is by Joe Hill, who is Stephen King’s son. It’s written in a much more commercial and accessible style, and Hill is clearly influenced by the works of his father. So, if you’re a King fan, which I am, you might enjoy Hill’s books, too.
Again, for those who may be unfamiliar, here’s a blurb (with which I have taken great liberties):
Victoria “Vic” McQueen, a deeply flawed woman who spends most of the novel in a state of perpetual denial, has an uncanny knack for finding things using a Raleigh Tuff Burner bike and a magical covered bridge. Joe Hill is, as I mentioned, Stephen King’s son, so it’s no surprise this story is set in New England, and what is a New England story without a covered bridge?
The magic bridge eventually takes Vic to Charles Talent Manx, a soul sucking vampiric creature-person who drives a cool old Rolls Royce Wraith that’s a lot like Kit from Knight Rider if Kit were possessed by a demon. Or, you know, kind of like that evil 1958 Plymouth Fury in Christine, a book by Joe Hill’s dad. Anyway, Charlie Manx likes kids but not in that “kiddie fiddler” kind of way that everyone wrongly accuses him of, and he kidnaps and takes the kids to a perpetual childhood in “Christmasland” (Hint: Christmasland isn’t as fun as it sounds). Helping him is the “Gasmask Man”, a simple-minded, childlike man who really, really hates women, especially “Mommies,” and does everything he can to torture and abuse them throughout the book. Fun times.
Manx sees Vic as a threat and tries to do bad things to her, but Victoria manages to escape and spends decades dealing, poorly, with the emotional trauma of her magical abilities and her near-death run-in with Manx and Gasmask Man. She has some good times, even manages to fall in love with a wonderful cinnamon roll of a man (seriously, Lou is the best character in the book), and she writes some successful children’s novels (that sound so cool they should exist in real life), but literal demons from her past haunt her into near insanity, and her life starts falling apart.
Eventually Vic, Manx, and Gasmask Man have their final showdown when Manx, still pissed that Victoria got away from him all those years ago, comes to seek his revenge. She puts on her big girl panties long enough to get stabbed, burned, beaten, and broken a whole lot before she finally goes Grinch all over Manx’s Christmasland.
I’m not going to lie. I struggled with this book. There was a time when I had more patience and tolerance for horror that used misogyny as one of its elements. That the misogyny was presented as an evil thing that came from the “bad guys” who may or may not meet justice for their violent hateful ways isn’t enough justification for me anymore. I don’t have much stomach left for premises that are predicated on violence against children and women (mothers in particular). I feel like we’ve been victims in media far too long, and I’m just so tired of that trope.
That Vic, a woman and a mother, turns out to be a righteous hero (somewhat of an anti-hero at times) was perhaps a redeeming element. She’s a complex character, written well. She and Lou, a great gentle giant of a man who was a great contrast to the woman hating violence of Manx and Gasmask Man, are what made the book worth finishing. There were more than a few times when I wanted to give up on it, but Lou and Vic were worth rooting for.
I might read The Haunting of Hill House again in the future. It’s the kind of book that will, I suspect, stand up to re-reading and will reveal new secrets and themes and elements upon future study. For me, N0S4A2 has none of that. Not that a good entertaining book needs to be deep or literary to be worthwhile. The kinds of books I write don’t stand up to long term scrutiny either. But as far as horror goes, phycological terror always appeals to me more than bloody violence and gore. For that reason alone, I definitely recommend The Haunting of Hill House over N0S4A2. But, I think any well rounded reader, especially ones who are fond of horror, would get something out of reading both.
Karissa Laurel lives in North Carolina with her kid, her husband, the occasional in-law, and a very hairy husky named Bonnie. Some of her favorite things are coffee, dark chocolate, superheroes, and Star Wars. She can quote Princess Bride verbatim. In the summer, she’s camping, kayaking, and boating at the lake, and in the winter, she’s skiing or curled up with a good book. She is the author of the Urban Fantasy trilogy, The Norse Chronicles; Touch of Smoke, a stand-alone paranormal romance; and The Stormbourne Chronicles, a YA second-world fantasy trilogy.
Serendipity at the End of the World —
Serendipity Blite and her sister, Bloom, use their unique talents to survive the apocalyptic aftermath of the Dead Disease. When Bloom is kidnapped, Sera is determined to get her back. Attempting a rescue mission in an undead-infested city would be suicidal, so Sera forms a specialized team to help retrieve her sister. But unfortunate accident sets Sera teetering on the edge of death. She must fight to save her own life, because surviving could mean finding family, love, and possibly a cure.
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