Saturday, October 2, 2010

What a character! – The Haunting of Hill House

The movie “The Haunting” is one of my favorite horror movies. While the opening credits informed me clearly that it was based on a book, I never thought to seek it out. A few years ago, I finally did get around to reading Shirley Jackson’s novel – and frankly I thought it was really lacking. There was no momentum to it. It went on and on about the main character and took forever to get to scares that never really happened. It was such a letdown – especially compared to the movie, which creeped into my brain as I watched it and had me jumping at shadows all night.

I decided to revisit “The Haunting of Hill House” again and see if maybe a few years would make a difference. Well, I think the big difference for me this time was that I knew what kind of book I was getting into. This was not a haunted house story, not really. It’s really a haunted person story. Eleanor is the focus of the book. The narrative often takes her point of view and when it doesn’t, it’s focused on her. Jackson is very careful to give us a very detailed look at the way Eleanor acts and reacts to the events leading up to her arrival at Hill House and her interaction with the other characters when she gets there.

The drive up to Hill House was one of the most annoying parts of the book when I first read it. Eleanor comments on many of the seemingly mundane things around her. I didn’t care! Get to the haunted house already! We get a little of this in the movie, but it’s only a couple scenes of her taking the car and leaving the city. The book actually charts all the stops she makes and what she does there. What’s the point? My second reading revealed that we see exactly how Eleanor takes these mundane stops and works herself into each situation in her mind. She creates elaborate fantasies about herself and these stops. Later in the book when she’s alone, Eleanor takes these fantasies and weaves them even further into her adventures at Hill House. Reality seems to slip away from her and the further she goes, the further into the house’s power she falls.

Make no mistake, Hill House is truly haunted by some power. The way it works on all the characters is a little different. We know more about Eleanor, because she’s the focus of the story, but it affects each character in its own way, filling them with dread. The house’s affect on Eleanor is causes her to see less and less harm in the house. It becomes a sanctuary for her. There are moments when the dread and fear are evident, but for the most part Eleanor is enchanted with Hill House and feels that she must become part of this fantasy. She almost becomes childlike at the end, completely giving up all sense of self to the fantasy of the house and her place in it.

In my mind, this book is a well-executed character study. Its moments of the supernatural are handled well, creating a feeling of unease. There have been arguments that the book takes place in Eleanor’s head. I don’t agree with that take. The house is haunted and Eleanor is the perfect victim, it swallows her whole. As for scares, the book still didn’t give me the creeps like the film did, but I will say that I enjoyed it a lot more and look forward to reading more of Jackson’s work.

What did you think of “The Haunting of Hill House”? Do you think Eleanor was an interesting character? Can you think of a book that was improved with the transfer to a film? Do you even want to discuss the 1999 version of the film?

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