My fascination with Shirley Jackson began 20 years or so ago when my Grandmother bought a biography of the author on a trip we were on. I had read "The Lottery" in school though I don't think at the time I really got the full impact of the story itself., so the name was familiar to me. If I remember correctly I had finished all the books I had brought and ended up reading this one and entered into Shirley Jackson's brilliant and tragic life. In addition to a number of short stories Jackson also has a lighter book about life with her children, Life Among the Savages, that gives you a little peak at Jackson's private life.
But now for The Haunting of Hill House -
If you're looking for a true horror book this probably isn't what you're looking for. There's no overwhelming moments of pure terror. There's not many scenes that are over the top terror. What there is is a slow gradual build of fear with a handful of really beautifully make you never ever want to put your hand over the side of the bed creepy scenes thrown in. This is a book that I always wonder why people say it's so scary and then I realize I'm reading the last 20 pages almost without breathing. This isn't the book that will have you covering your eyes or trying not to scream. This is the book that will suddenly jump into your head when you wake up for no reason at 2 in the morning and think that just maybe you heard something in the dark.
If you can get an audio version of this book I highly recommend you do. While I had read the book before I really didn't get the humor in the book until I listened to the audio version. I'm not suggesting it suddenly turns into a slapstick but you really get some of Jackson's dry wit coming through in the dialogue when it's read. I actually giggled a couple of times - especially when Eleanor basically mocks Mrs. Dudley's warnings about no one being able to hear you scream. The one I listened to was performed by David Warner and while I didn't love how he did the women's voices he did do a beautiful job of balancing sarcasm and fear.
So after the listening and the rereading it was movie time! There's 2 movie adaptations. Both called The Haunting. One is from 1963 and the other from 1999.
The Good: Of the two movies this holds truer to the book. We get a lot of Nell's thoughts in voice overs which is more in character with the book. The creepiness is done right. It's more about what you can't see than what you can. I also thought that Russ Tamblyn was fantastic as Luke and loved his references to the property value of the house. It brought a little of the sly humor that's in the book into the movie.
The Bad: There was an element of romance played up between Nell and Dr. Markway (as Dr. Montague is in this movie) that jarred. I could see why it was does from a plot perspective but it was so out of character for both of them that it annoyed me. I didn't care for the casting of Mrs. Dudley as Rosalie Crutchley. While Mrs. Dudley has one of the most well known lines in the book/movie I didn't think Rosalie had the necessary dourness to really do justice to them.
The Good: The casting is actually remarkably good. Catherine Zeta-Jones is as lovely and exotic and maddening as Theodora is supposed to be. Lili Taylor does a fabulous job as the somewhat plain and worn down Eleanor. The rather striking and elegant Marian Seldes definitely captures the correct foreboding tone of Mrs. Dudley. The actual setting of Hill House is good to. The rooms are over the top uncomfortably large with a plethora of carvings. The atmosphere is definitely done right.
The Bad: Then the movie starts actually happening and that's where it goes off the rails a bit. While the first part isn't particularly awful it isn't particularly interesting either. I was okay that they changed the premise of why the characters were in the house but the whole plot took a left turn into the rather cliche stuff jumping out of you scares. Then we lost the road all together and the end bore very little resemblance to the actual book.
The Ugly: The special effects are bad. Very very bad. I know that computer animation has come along way since 1999 but this was just bad. I'm pretty sure the special effects in the 1963 version were better.
Overall: I'm not sure why Dr. Montague's name was changed in both movies (Markway in 63 and Marrow in 99) but that's not really a big deal. The 1963 movie is a fun spooky movie and I really enjoyed watching that one. The 1999 version not so much. In both movies Hill House itself isn't able to be quite the character that it is in the book so I think you lose a little of the impact of the story. While the 63 movie is definitely enjoyable I think to get the really true feel of the book you should definitely try the audio.
And so Hill House has stood for 80 years and will stand for 80 more.