The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959) 246 p.
Stephen King called The Haunting of Hill House the greatest American horror novel of the 20th century; I think I picked it up after reading this Guardian list of 10 unconventional fantasy novels. It revolves around parapsychologist Dr Montague’s investigation of the titular mansion, for which he recruits two young women with previous paranormal experiences, Theodora and Eleanor, and the mansion’s heir, Luke.
The novel largely follows Eleanor’s perspective, whom it eventually becomes clear is an unreliable narrator. Jackson deliberately makes it difficult to tell the border between Eleanor’s own mental instabilities and the house’s disquieting effects. Which is not to say that Hill House’s “haunting” (the details of which I won’t spoil) is a figment of her imagination; Luke and the doctor witness their own paranormal events, and in one particularly disturbing moment Theodora and Eleanor are outside at night when Theodora witnesses something behind them and screams at Eleanor to run. Much of the book consists of the characters speaking, in banter which can sometimes grow tedious, but I can appreciate that the chaff is necessary to make the terrifying moments stand out all the more.
The novel is flawed somewhat towards the end; I’d been having a a perfectly creepy time (partly because I made sure to only read it late at night) when all of a sudden Dr Montague’s wife and her friend Alan show up to join the household. Mrs Montague considers herself a paranormal expert as well, of greater expertise than her husband, and both she and Alan are tiresomely drawn as pompous characters to add an edge of comic relief to a novel which really didn’t need it.
Nevertheless, The Haunting of Hill House is a pretty solid haunted house story, with some genuinely scary moments and a well-drawn, brooding atmosphere. There’s a wealth of analytic material there – feminist and gothic and what have you – if you feel like writing an essay on it, but for the ordinary reader it’s just a good, creepy horror novel.