Spookyween #3: The Haunting of Hill House

Hello all you old buildings hungry for the psychological hangups and insecurities of early middle-aged white people! Today we’re talkin’ about a classic. Now, full disclosure, avid horror fan though I am I do have some surprising gaps in what I’ve personally consumed. Some classics of the genre I’ve just never gotten around to experiencing. The Thing, never seen it; The Silence of the Lambs, never seen the movie or read the book – though I find it dubious that so many consider it a horror as opposed to a thriller; Rosemary’s Baby, more like NOsemary’s Baby (I’m hilarious); and up until recently I’d never read “The Haunting of Hill House.” 

Now I’m actually not here to talk about the book, though I do want to touch on it briefly. “The Haunting of Hill House” is often considered the finest horror book ever written, and while I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that I would certainly say it’s one of the most finely written. Shirley Jackson was a master of language and character and this is one of her finest, most heartbreaking works.

Jackson lived a notably difficult life; agoraphobic, likely suffering from depression, and frequently overshadowed by her husband (who frequently cheated on her with his students and fully controlled her finances, and was a total ass by all accounts), Jackson never rose to the heights of the literary world to which she belonged. I strongly urge everyone to read “Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life” by Ruth Franklin to get some insight into a long unsung genius. Then go out and read all of Jackson’s work because she was truly a master.

Recently Netflix released a 10 episode semi-adaptation of the novel. But also not really. It’s not an adaptation so much as an exploration of the themes using a completely different story. And for the most part it works!

The story follows the Crain family – father Hugh, eldest son Steve, sisters Shirley and Theodora, and twins Eleanor and Luke, and mother Olivia – in two different time periods. In the past, Hugh and Eleanor are renovating Hill House in order to flip it. Olivia is suffering from frequent migraines and sleep deprivation. The children are experiencing various spookems, particularly Luke and Eleanor and the dad is trying to keep them all together. It does not end well.

In the present, the kids are estranged from their father and have all built up various walls to cope with what happened in their past. Tragically Eleanor returns to Hill House and takes her own life, which leads to the family coming together for her funeral.

A major source of tension is that Steve wrote a book about their experiences in Hill House and it’s makin’ him some serious bank. But Steve doesn’t believe in any of the supernatural stuff. He thinks his family just suffers from undiagnosed mental illnesses that they’re all refusing to deal with.

Meanwhile, Theodora – who is my favorite character as both a child and an adult – has Dead Zone powers and an adorably persistent semi-girlfriend but makes the mistake of touching Eleanor’s body at the viewing.

Luke is a junky, constantly in and out of rehab, who has a deep almost psychic connection with Eleanor and is nine months sober, but when Eleanor dies it affects him almost like withdrawal. Slowly, all the children are drawn back to Hill House (very slowly actually, they don’t even get there til the last episode) and they have to confront their past and find out the truth of how their mother died.

The show is pretty great! The acting is phenomenal by all involved and the writing holds up for the most part. It cribs a lot from the book, including names and verbatim lines of dialogue, and remixes them in interesting ways. I would actually recommend both reading the book and watching the show. The show is much better if you view it as a sort of echo of the book. The book is better, to be sure, but the show is good in its own way.

I’ve read some criticism of the show saying that it’s ending is too happy but I don’t think it is. The book ends with the main character killing herself so that she can live in Hill House forever. The show ends…similarly, but I think in a sneaky way. It’s framed as a happy ending, a reconciliation where the kids have gotten over their traumas and can move on to happier lives. But the house is still standing, it’s still hungry, and it has a dark appeal waiting inside that will eventually draw them all back, I think. In the “happy” montage at the end we even see a few characters doing exactly what happens in the book, sacrificing themselves at the altar of Hill House so that they can live forever, trapped in its walls.

I implore you all to try both of these variations out. The book is a genuine masterpiece and the show is consistently very good.

See you next week!

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