I must admit it. I liked the Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House. I watched it twice, then borrowed Shirley Jackson’s novel from the library. I was, at first, sixth in line for the only copy they have, but all things come to those who wait. Especially library books. There were five other people waiting in line when I brought it back. Then I found a copy of the 1963 Robert Wise movie The Haunting in The Beat Goes On, one of Guelph’s used stuff shops. It was a much more faithful and straightforward adaptation of the novel than Netflix provided.
I was caught up in Jackson’s world again. I first read the novel about 50 years ago. Maybe 55. It was good. I could remember its tenor, but details faded away long ago. After reading it again, I had an epiphany of sorts. I still liked the Netflix series, but thought a more accurate title would have been The Ransacking of Hill House.
If you’ve been paying attention, you know by now the novel was not about a family planning to renovate and sell a mysterious old house. There’s no bent-neck lady, no floating man in a bowler hat, no flapper girl talking about the elephant’s eyebrows, no police called to the house, no lots of other things that were written into the screenplay.
No one sees a ghost in the novel or the old movie. They never actually show up. They are heard, or sensed, but not seen. They bang on walls or walk the halls while Theodora and Eleanor hide in their room. It’s the difference between terror and horror in literature and Shirley Jackson raised the standard.
In terror, you don’t see the face of evil, but you feel it’s presence. In horror you see it and feel it and fear it. Terror is the apprehension of evil, the expectation of it. Horror is its arrival, the experience of its consequences.
Don’t watch the television series without also reading the novel. Or maybe you should. They are similar but different. Each can stand on its own. Just don’t think that if you’ve seen it on Netflix, you’ve read the book.
There are fascinating literary references in the novel that are not in the television show. Eleanor Vance repeats a passage from Shakespeare so many times that it becomes a steady mantra: “Journeys end in lovers meeting.”
I’m as far away from becoming a Shakespearean scholar as a man can get, but I am a graduate of the Wikipedia campus of Google University. That’s how I know the line comes from Twelfth Night, in a jester’s song. So why does Jackson dwell on this theme so much in her book? I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking.
At one point in the novel, Jackson has Eleanor Vance recite the full passage, including the lines “What is love? ’tis not hereafter (.…) what’s to come is still unsure.”
I don’t know about you, but this makes me think back 15 years ago to when my mother was dying. She was near the end of a ten-year journey through dementia and an 85-year journey through life. The further along she got, the more she wanted to see her mother and her sister. She knew, in her mind, that when she died she would see them again. What’s to come was not unsure for her. It was a dead certainty. Her journey would end when she met her mother again.
Eleanor Vance was a lonely, damaged woman who spent years looking after her invalid mother. When that burden lifted, she moved in with her domineering sister and brother-in-law. Her journey ended when she met Hill House. There was no turning back and no moving forward. In the novel, Hill House is alive, an evil persona that captures Eleanor and refuses to let her go.
Nell Crain grew into a lonely woman who was haunted by her own death since she was a young child. She was the bent neck lady. Her husband, Arthur Vance, died suddenly and left her alone and bereft. Nell’s journey ended when she stepped off the spiral staircase and swung into Arthur’s world. On Netflix, Hill House is a location, a place where Nell ends her grief.
This is where the Netflix series departs most severely from the book. There is no red room in the novel. Such a room is a contrivance in ghost stories, almost a cliché. It is different things to different people but is, in the end, a holding tank, the station at the destination where the departed wait for the end of time.
The novel starts and ends with a description of Hill House and a statement that those who walk there walk alone. Netflix begins like that but ends with a statement that those who walk there walk together. In the Netflix world, journeys do not end in lovers meeting. They do not end at all. This could be why we are already hearing about the possibility of a second season. Here’s hoping it doesn’t happen.
You should never judge a book by its movie. If you do, ninety-nine times out of a hundred the book will win.
- Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House, Penguin Classics, 1959.
- Robert Wise, The Haunting, MGM, 1963.
- Mike Flanagan, The Haunting of Hill House, Netflix, 2018.