BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness: The Haunting of Hill House

Hearts of Darkness is a year-long reading list project investigating the literary horror genre – where does it come from, where is it going, and what is it’s dark hold on our collective imaginations. Starting in the 19th century, and heading straight through to the 21st, we will be reading the classics, reviewing them, and trying to make sense of this journey of fear and terror. This week, one of the classic (and much copied) Haunted House stories. For the first time in this reading list, I had to put a book down and shudder. Sometimes it’s the simple ideas, perfectly executed, that have the greatest effect; a clarity of vision, that gets through all the defenses you build up and just make you feel the need to look away for a second. Horror, it has been said, really is all in the mind, and in The Haunting of Hill House, its the mind that gets worked on to great effect.

The setup feels pretty familiar, not least because it has been so often imitated. Hill House has a dark history and a reputation for being haunted, so a psychologist gets permission to take a few guests to stay there one summer to investigate and write a paper on it. He has a pretty open mind about the house, maybe its haunted, maybe it isn’t – certainly no tennants stay for long, and the locals shun it, but he’s not going to live there, just study the place and even if the house is haunted, its not like ghosts can hurt you, right? Right?

There are two big things I think about when I think of The Haunting of Hill House. The first is that the house itself if a character – it has a personality, a temperament, and feels like a player in the story. At the same time its nature is ambiguous, motives unknown and capacities uncertain. It is just there, lurking, malevolent and needy. The second is that perception is a key part of the way the story is presented, and your perception, as a reader, is being manipulated by the story as much as the characters perceptions are being manipulated by the house.

The effect of all of this is to make the book extraordinarily creepy. The conflict between the quiet, daytime conversations and investigations, and the growing nighttime campaign of terror gives the book a pace that ebbs and flows, pausing for breath before suddenly plunging onwards, and you can never be sure where it is going next. I found myself questioning everything – do some characters even exist? Did that actually happen? The characters sink deeper and deeper in the house’s dark miasma and you, the reader sinks along with it….

And in places I properly shuddered. There is nothing grand at work here, no big reveal, no scooby-doo moment when you find out “what is going on”. There is just longing, loneliness, madness and death. Its unsettling, and its wonderful with it.

Next time: Before it was made into one of the most famous Horror Movies of all time, it was a Novel – William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist.

Any comments, feedback or opinions welcome either below or via twitter @thegrampus.

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