What I liked
I don’t want to be overdramatic, but, everything? I got this from the library on audiobook (a lot of my reading is done via library audiobook during my daily commute). It’s completely absorbing. By the time I finished (on a walk, luckily, given the final actions), I’d already asked my local bookstore to order a print copy for me. I’ve been rereading it with pencil in hand, making notes on every paragraph, every word.
The characters are believable in a shockingly familiar way. Jackson paints Eleanor’s thoughts so honestly—I thought I was the only one who thought that way. And even when Eleanor’s actions don’t match her thoughts, the reader can understand why.
And the tension! It just builds and builds. Until the print reread, I hadn’t noticed that they don’t spend the first night in Hill House until about 1/3 of the way through the book, and not much even happens that night. Except that Eleanor gets her first good night’s sleep in years, which somehow comes across as sinister.
Jackson tells us right up front that Hill House is evil, “not sane,” “holding darkness.” After that, in a passage so beautifully crafted that it both opens and closes the novel, she hardly has to explain the why or how. We believe it. We see what it does to Eleanor. While there’s always a sliver of a doubt about how far gone Eleanor’s mental state was before she arrived, there’s no room for doubt about the experiences that all the characters share. Hill House is terrifyingly evil, and like real-life evil, it will never make complete sense.
What I didn’t like
There were a few interactions between Eleanor and Theodora that confused me a bit, but I suspect this has more to do with how female friendships have changed since the 1950s. Since the character interactions rely on the reader’s understanding of how human relationships work, this made them dependent on a particular point in time, with the existing social norms.
FWIW, I don’t think of that as a problem with the writing. It’s just something that took me out of it briefly.
What I can learn
Be honest inside a character’s head. They’re not writing a diary that others might find. These are their most intimate, irrational, reactionary, hateful, fearful, generous, delusional thoughts before they edit them into speech or behavior.
Trust the reader’s emotional and social intelligence. We’ve all been there. So sketch a scene with behaviors and dialogue and let the reader figure out what’s going on under the surface.
Include only the right details in the right places. Which is way easier said than done, but relies a lot on the previous point.
Use “telling” sparingly for the greatest effect. Show everything else through someone’s eyes, subjectively.
A lot more… I’m certain.
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