No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
— Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
Some writers consider this the best opening paragraph in an English-language horror novel, and others say that makes sense, since it may actually be the best English-language horror novel. For my money, I wouldn’t call it a horror novel per se, but it’s the book that quietly, firmly, took hold of my shoulders and steered me away from the foil-stamped die-cut covers of demon-of-the-week drugstore books and into the territory of the unknown, the creepy, the sinister, and the truly frightening. Here live the likes of Peter Straub and Robert Aickmann, the trees of Mythago Wood, the sinister manipulations of Mrs. Danvers, and the antiquated ghost stories of M. R. James and J. Sheridan LeFanu. Here, nothing jumps out from a dark corner baring fangs and claws crusted with the blood and souls of your friends and takes you by surprise; by the time you’re this far into the story, it doesn’t need to. It can quietly sit next to you on your bed and wait for you to finish, because it already knows you’re lost.
The Haunting of Hill House took a trope that was already becoming the staple of afternoon matinees and pulp fiction, the haunted and abandoned house, and made it into something infinitely more frightening than anything that had come before. The characters are some of the most lushly described in fiction, and their personalities pop off of the page. Their motives for exploring the house and for saying what they say to the others are crystal-clear and believable, especially once they start reacting to what may or may not be going on around them. And for a book where nothing indeed does jump out of the closet, where no blood is spilled, it will leave you chilled and haunted after you finish.
On top of that, the 1963 movie version*, The Haunting, comes as close as possible to capturing the eerie atmosphere of the book. Directed by Robert Wise (who also directed The Sound of Music and Star Trek: The Motion Picture… nothing like having a varied resume…) uses slow camera movement, shadows, and captures some impeccable acting by the four leads. I definitely recommend reading the book first but you cannot go wrong with the movie as well. Put it on some late night with popcorn, cider, and a few witnesses nearby in case you suddenly realize you’re in the house, alone…
* Don’t believe the rumors about a remake in 1999. They didn’t remake the film, they tricked it into walking down a dark alley and brutally abused it for two hours. The Stephen King miniseries Rose Red was inspired by The Haunting and while it’s still just a pale imitation, it’s worth watching.