235 pages. This edition is part of the Penguin Horror series, and includes introduction to the series (by Guillermo Del Toro) and introduction to the novel (by Laura Miller), and suggestions for further reading.
Shirley Jackson was a talented author, known both for her novels and her humorous magazine writing about family life; sadly, her real family life was not so happy, leading to prescription drug abuse, health problems, and a young death at 48.
She was well regarded in her time, but less remembered today. She wrote six novels, of which this one is the most famous; it was also made into an excellent movie (The Haunting), less viewed now as it is black-and-white which is no longer in fashion. There was also a 1999 remake and a 2018 mini-series that was very loosely based on the novel. Not to be confused with The Legend of Hell House, another great film and (later) novel.
The novel starts off explaining how Dr. Montague planned his experiment and recruited a select number of psychic-sensitive individuals, but the novel quickly veers to put the focus on Eleanor. She's the one associated with poltergeist activity in her childhood; she's been manipulated by a (now dead) mother and a sister; she 'steals' a car she half-owns with her sister to drive to Hill House.
The author tells us Eleanor's thoughts, so we see her childish dreams, her anxieties, her self-doubts (is she responsible through negligence for her mother's death?).
When she reaches Hill House, we gradually meet the other characters: Theodora, who has the gift of predicting cards, whose sexuality is left tantalizingly undefined (who is her 'companion'? why does she love Eleanor so deeply?). Dr. Montague, an amiable older, chubby anthropologist, who hopes this experiment will culminate his life's work. Luke, the young man who will someday inherit Hill House, sent to protect the house from any damage. Mrs. Dudley, the housekeeper with the strict schedule, who never stays after dark.
The doctor is reluctant to tell much about the history of the house, but eventually tells all he knows about the previous owners, the mysterious deaths, and the long abandonment of the house.
The reader experiences everything from Eleanor's perspective, which is highly effective and keeps you wondering if what Eleanor senses is the real truth. There's a cold spot outside the nursery, loud bangs in the night, writing that appears on the walls… and why is Eleanor changing?
If you've watched the 1963 movie, it is remarkably faithful to the novel (particularly Julie Harris' performance); the major change is to make the doctor more of a leading man type.
Can you game it? As a horror RPG, yes, but I don't see how it would translate to a wargaming tabletop. It did make me think of a horror campaign in which the environment changes as the characters experience new things and the laws of physics are amended.
A wonderful book, excellently written, and it leaves you to come up with your own conclusions. Recommended.
Reviewed by Editor in Chief Bill .