R.I.P. Classics for Halloween: The Haunting of Hill House, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

I’ve enjoyed my second year participating in the Readers Imbibing Peril challenge. The highlights from my spooky October of reading were the classic ghost stories from my first installment and the Shirley Jackson novel below.

As this goes live I’m preparing to catch a train to York for the New Networks for Nature conference. Ever since the year I did my Master’s at Leeds, York is a place I’ve often contrived to be in late October or early November. What with ghost tours and fireworks for Bonfire Night, its cobbled streets are an atmospheric place to spend chilly evenings.

 

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)

The only thing I’d read by Jackson before is “The Lottery,” which I studied in a high school English class. I’d long meant to read one of her full-length books, so I snapped this up when it came into the free bookshop where I volunteer.

Dr. Montague, an anthropologist, assembles a small team to live at Hill House one summer and record any evidence that it is indeed haunted. Joining him are Luke Sanderson, the flippant heir to the house; Theodora (“Theo”), rumoured to have psychic abilities; and Eleanor Vance, a diffident 32-year-old who experienced an unexplained event when she was a child and now, after the recent death of the mother for whom she was a nurse for years, determines to have an adventure all of her own. As the four become familiar with the house’s history of tragedies and feuds, their attempts to explore the house and grounds leave them feeling disoriented and, later, terrified.

Things really heat up at about the halfway point. There’s a feeling that the house has power –

“the evil is the house itself, I think … it is a place of contained ill will” (Dr. Montague)

“It’s the house. I think it’s biding its time.” (Eleanor)

– what could it make them all do? I don’t often read from the suspense or horror genre, but I did find this gripping and frightening, and I never saw the ending coming. Hard to believe the book is 60 years old.

(I wondered if Claire Fuller could have taken this as partial inspiration for Bitter Orange, in which a thirtysomething woman who was her mother’s carer for many years until the older woman’s death undertakes a summer of study at a dilapidated house.)

 

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)

As with The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I attempted in 2017, I think the problem here was that the story was too culturally familiar to me. Everyone knows the basics of Jekyll & Hyde: a respectable doctor occasionally transforms into a snarling boor and commits acts of violence. The only thing that was murky for me was exactly how this happens. (Jekyll has been experimenting with drugs that will provoke mystical experiences and a taste of the dark side of humanity; to become Hyde he takes a potion of his own devising. At first the metamorphosis is something he can control, but eventually he starts becoming Hyde without any warning, until it seems there’s no returning to his normal life.)

The novella is mostly from the point of view of Mr. Utterson, Jekyll’s lawyer friend, who drew up his will leaving everything to Hyde. Utterson has always been uncomfortable with the terms of the will, but even more so as he hears of Hyde knocking over a young girl and beating a gentleman to death in the street. The third-person narrative is interspersed with documents including letters and confessions, a bit like in Dracula. For its first readers this must have been a thrilling read full of shocking revelations, but I found my mind wandering. I’ve tried a few Stevenson books now; I think this was probably my last.

(Available as a free download from Project Gutenberg.)

 

Happy Halloween!

8 responses

  1. I read The Haunting of Hill House last year. At first I thought it was an unremarkable period piece and wondered why so many bloggers were so enranced by Jackson’s writing but by the time I got to the end I was scared witless!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was surprised by how scary I found it, as I’m usually unmoved by this kind of thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The comment by A Life in Books leaves me quite certain I shan’t read The Haunting of Hill House. British politics is quite enough being-scared-witless for this year, thank you.

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    1. It’s true, the news from our countries is terrifying enough! But if you ever do fancy a horror/suspense read, Shirley Jackson is recommended.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t think Hill House is one for me – i can scare myself over nothing, after all. Good themed post, though and enjoy your conference!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve always been a total wimp when it comes to anything remotely scary but I’ve recently started watching some mild horror and have really enjoyed it. The last thing I watched was the Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House and I loved it so I’m tempted to read the book next (although it sounds a lot scarier than the TV show!). I’m glad you enjoyed it as much as you did.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh, I’d be really interested to see how much they show and how much they merely suggest in a movie version.

      Like

  5. loved reading this! Hill House is one of my all time favorites.

    Liked by 1 person

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