I first read this book in 1999, when I was 20 years old. I’d seen the movie version of it in theatre with some friends and decided to try the book version, because of course I usually figured the book would be better than the movie. I read the book and was disappointed. It felt old-fashioned, clichéd, and ridiculous. The characterization made no sense. The tone and atmosphere were borderline silly, and I found myself giggling at the sheer awfulness of the book all the way through.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that the book wasn’t modern. I thought it was a recent book, not one published 40 years earlier, and so I was reading it with modern expectations. Those clichés? Not cliché at all, but more likely the invention of things that later became clichéd when other authors copied them. I dismissed the book through lack of knowledge and information, and I knew, after reading (and loving) several other Shirley Jackson books over the last few years, that I needed to give this one a second chance.
I’m so glad I did! Having the perspective of the book’s age, as well as a better understanding of tone, characterization, and writing than I did at age 20, made this a far better reading experience. I was struck right away by the ominous creepiness of Eleanor’s mind. While it was in third person narration, the narrator stuck by Eleanor, who never seems quite right. I found myself wondering if she was mentally handicapped, or mentally ill, or downright psychotic! Even before she gets to Hill House and the various phenomena start happening, her way of thinking is warped.
I love the doctor’s initial hypothesis of a house being able to drive people into insanity because its corners and lines are all slightly off-center, out of alignment, and not quite square. In a way, it makes me think of the ideas about modern living many US cultures have: that in order to have a good, happy, upright life, you must live by a specific, standardized set of rules, and those people who live contrary to them will slowly dissolve into degradation and unhappiness. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. I don’t know. Still, it was fun to think of the book and of Hill House itself as a metaphor for what happens when you step out of line with the status quo, especially given that the book was published in 1959.
Even after a second read, I’m not sure I fully understand everything that went on in this book. There are so many jumps in the narrative, so many mood changes in Eleanor, and as the book goes on, everything unravels! It gets more and more surreal, until you’re left sort of blinking in confusion and wondering what went over your head. I imagine that’s the way it’s supposed to feel, sort of unsettled and not-quite-complete. It was perfect for the story.
I still can’t say that I liked this book more than We Have Always Lived in the Castle or The Lottery, but I am very happy to have reread it and straightened out my 20-year-old thoughts. Plus, I proved to myself, once again, that sometimes even books I disliked are worth a second chance.
Note: Originally read in 1999.