On the surface, The Haunting of Hill House is a straightforward ghost story, where four strangers meet in an isolated gothic mansion and experience supernatural phenomena. Dr. Montague, an anthropologist, has rented the haunted house for three months. He hopes to make his fame and fortune "upon the publication of his definitive work on the causes and effects of psychic disturbances." His search for suitable assistants unearths Eleanor Vance, who had dutifully cared for her mother for eleven years, leading a life of "small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness, and unending despair." Two others agree to join the Doctor, Theodora, for whom duty and conscience are "attributes which belonged properly to Girl Scouts", and Luke Sanderson, who will inherit Hill House, and who "was a liar" and "also a thief."
There is one memorable scene early in the book that depicts the strange folk in the town of Hillsdale, but other than this the action takes place in and around Hill House. The quartet of characters are subjected to strange noises, inexplicable temperature variations and messages written on walls. But these are not what make the story frightening. It is how the characters think and react that provoke feelings of unease and dread.
Although I found the characters fascinating, the ghostly events are somewhat cliched. Shirley Jackson's writing style is very evocative of 1950s America and the dialogue reads like a film script. My personal preference however is for a British, more modern setting, such as The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley or Sheep by Simon Maginn, both of which contained more psychological terror. The Haunting of Hill House feels dated compared to these, but it is nonetheless a classic of the horror genre.
Surprisingly there was a fair amount of humour provided by the unwavering Mrs. Dudley and Dr. Montague's eager wife. The star of the book however is Eleanor. Throughout the story she repeats a line from a song by Shakespeare, "Journeys end in lovers' meeting", but I thought a more suitable refrain would be from The Smiths's There Is A Light That Never Goes Out: "I never never want to go home, Please don't take me home, Because I haven't got one".