Long after I saw the movie, I finally got around to reading the book "The Haunting of Hill House." Like the movie, it's a cut above most items in the genre. I don't think that the book is vastly better from most horror books in the way that the movie is vastly better than most horror movies, but it is really well-done, and like the movie it draws most of its effectiveness from absence than from presence.
For those of you who haven't seen the movie "The Haunting" (the original, of course), I highly recommend it. Before you pop it in your DVD player, take a look at the rating on the back of the box. Look again. Yep - it's rated "G" for General Audiences. A horror movie! It can't be that scary, right?
Wrong. A lot of people will agree that The Haunting is one of the most frightening movies ever made. It belongs to that great period in the past when movies actually strove to be frightening, as opposed to today, when they're content to be shocking. There's a world of difference. Any hack can shock you, relying on a boring staple of technique - sudden loud noises, grisly images, bursts of violence. Those movies can make you jump in your seat, but they rarely linger after you're done. In contrast, the best horror movies - think Hitchcock when he's trying to be scary - stick with you, slowly eat away at you, bring a twinge of terror to everyday events in the rest of your life.
The Haunting belongs to that tradition. The amazing thing about this movie, and the reason why it has a "G" rating, is that you never see anything. It's about a haunted house, but you never see any ghosts. All of the terror of the movie comes through sound, and motion, and stories of the past... you hear pounding on the walls, rattling doorknobs, the panicked reactions of the house's guests, and it all adds up to something incredibly scary.
The book largely follows the same plot line as the movie, for about the first three-fourths of the way. It's been a while since I saw the film, but I think the plot lines and characters generally track one another... the book may spend a little more time on Eleanor's journey to Hill House, including a visit to the small town nearby and some fantasies about cottages she passes by.
The actual cast of characters seems to be largely the same as well; I think that I was projecting the movie's actors onto the book's characters, but I didn't experience any huge problems from doing so. Eleanor is still a kindly, timid, hopeful but damaged woman; Theodora is a more vibrant and extroverted woman (and I think also a lesbian, a fact I'd missed when first watching the movie until it was pointed out to me). Luke is a bit of a rake and a scoundrel, but good-tempered and cheerful. The doctor is patient, interested, bright, and empathetic while still slightly distant from his charges. I think that the doctor's wife wasn't as big of a presence in the movie, and I don't recall the character of Arthur at all; he certainly isn't essential to the action in the book, and could easily have been trimmed at the cost of just some comic relief (which, arguably, the book doesn't really need at the late point where he enters). I don't remember the caretakers too well, either, though their role does feel familiar.
The course of events largely tracks that of the film as well. At first the house's actions seem entirely believable - people get lost when moving around, doors that they open are later found shut, and so on. This gradually escalates to knocks on the doors, attempts by the house to separate the guests, and eventually writing on the walls and other manifestations. Other than a brief reported sighting of a dog, no animated creature ever appears.
I'm a bit curious how frightening this would have seemed if I didn't have the visual experiences from the film already in my head. I think it would have still been effective, if perhaps just a tad less so. The story is almost entirely told from Eleanor's perspective, and the way she fights to make sense of what's going on is both touching and scary. She mentally disintegrates as the stresses of her visit mount, and seems to become another person at times. I think that the movie kept her thoughts in the script through the use of voiceovers, which I generally dislike in movies, but does seem in keeping with the spirit of the book.
Beyond a certain point, the events in the book started seeming new to me. Eleanor and Theo go for a walk on the grounds, and stumble across a picnic. The description of exactly what's happening remain vague, but it seems to involve parents, and children, and a dog. They run away, with Theo later hysterically admitting that, despite her best efforts, she had looked back at the scene.
Of course, this gets rid of the whole "they never actually see anything" angle, so I can definitely see why it was cut from the movie. There's also a scene still later in the book where the three young visitors go for a walk during the day. Eleanor goes on ahead, is unwittingly separated from the others, and sees footprints approaching her through the grass. This was also cut; I think that the movie, very wisely, chose to focus on the events within the house itself. It's much more claustrophobic and closed-in to confine yourself within its doors.
The biggest changes happen started when Margaret, the Doctor's wife, arrives. A self-proclaimed sensitive, she seemingly believes in the supernatural as strongly as the doctor' but in a wholly different way, focusing on an Ouiji-board-like device to communicate and totally convinced that the spirits are kindly, sweet souls who just want someone to understand them before moving on to the next world. She upends the rhythm of life in house, and more or less derails the story. Arthur is even more out of place, an old boy who is headmaster at a school and offers to patrol the house with his pistol.
The ultimate ending of the book isn't quite as effective as the movie's, although it does hold to the same basic idea of the house holding on to the one it has chosen. It is interesting to follow Eleanor's thoughts and words over the last dozen pages or so and try to figure out just what's going on. Is she being possessed by a spirit? Have the stresses of the house triggered her latent mental instability and driven her mad? In either case her thoughts are quite disorganized, and it's hard to not pity her ultimately undramatic end.
After reading this, I really want to watch The Haunting again. Hey, who needs sleep?