Hill House has stood for eighty years. It broods darkly and there is something evil inside – something that walks alone. Stories of its haunting have circulated for a long time and it cannot seem to be lived in or rented for more than a few days before the inhabitants leave inexplicably.
Dr. Montague, an anthropologist with an interest in the supernatural, decides to rent Hill House for the summer so he can spend time observing the phenomena. He invites several people of whom he has heard possess telepathic abilities or involvement with the paranormal. Two young women agree to come – the lively and charming Theodora, and the shy and naïve Eleanor. Mrs. Sanderson, the current owner of the house, sends her son Luke along as a family representative.
The novel is largely told through Eleanor’s eyes. She is thrilled to be undertaking this adventure, having spent practically her whole adult life taking care of her demanding invalid mother. Her mother died recently and Eleanor now lives with her sister and her sister’s family. She has never done anything on her own and is anxious to get away from her stultifying existence.
Eleanor takes the family car against her sister’s wishes and begins her drive to Hill House. She delights in every moment, daydreaming and musing about what it might be like to live in some of the places she passes. She arrives at Hill House first and is immediately struck by how horrible it is. It is dark, oppressive, and undeniably diseased. The caretaker and his wife, the Dudleys, are rude and stern and warn her that they leave before dark falls and no one in the town of Hillsdale will ever hear them in the night.
Up in her gloomy room, Eleanor wonders if she ought to flee immediately. However, she hears a voice downstairs and is thrilled to meet the effervescent Theodora. The two young women take a liking to each other. They also meet the friendly and roguish Luke and the professorial Dr. Montague.
The group has dinner and enjoys each other’s company. The three young people beg Dr. Montague to tell them why they are here. He resists, but eventually tells them the story of Hill House. Hugh Crain, a strange and wealthy man, built the home for his young wife and daughters. Sadly, his wife died before seeing the house when their carriage overturned in the driveway. Crain’s two other wives died as well. The two sisters grew up in Hill House for awhile but were then sent away.
After Crain died, there was some question as to which sister would inherit the house, but when the youngest sister married, it was decided that the older sister would live there. The older sister moved in and remained unmarried; only a young village girl lived with her, acting as a companion.
When Old Miss Crain, as she came to be called, died, her companion had a good claim to the house. The younger sister took her to court. The companion won but the younger sister hounded her until she eventually committed suicide; it is said she hanged herself in the tower rafters. The house passed from owner to owner until it ended up in the Sandersons’ possession, though they never resided there.
Now the house sits silent and menacing, and stories circulate about supernatural and spectral events; it has a suffocating hospitality and never seems to want its denizens to leave. The three young people are chilled but cheerfully remain to help the Doctor.
The night passes uneventfully and the next morning the group decides to officially explore the house. It is not as easy to do so as one might think, for the house is arranged in concentric circles and is full of strange angles, stairs that are not level, rooms without windows, etc. It is dark and stuffy, and the doors never seem to stay open.
Dr. Montague, who had studied a map, guides them. They visit most of the rooms downstairs. The library, located in the tower, is said to be the place where the companion hanged herself. When the Doctor opens the door, Eleanor immediately feels a sense of revulsion and smells a strong scent of mold. The others are fine to go in but she shrinks in horror and thinks of her mother for some reason.
The rest of the exploration of the house yields a strange, massive marble statue that is possibly of Hugh Crain and his daughters. Then, disturbingly, the group encounters a patch of air in front of the nursery that is shockingly freezing with no discernible cause. Inside the nursery is disturbing, with two distorted smiling creatures hanging above the door.
That evening an excessive pounding on doors in the hallway awakens Theodora and Eleanor. They think it could be the Doctor and Luke but realize quickly that it is not. The pounding persists, sometimes fast, sometimes slow. It comes right up to the door and feels around the edges. Eleanor screams that it cannot get in and it is silent. There is a giggling laugh as of a child calling for its mother, and then the noise ceases.
Luke and the Doctor come upstairs and the women open the door. The men had seen a dog or some other such creature in the house even though there were no open doors, and followed it outside. They heard no pounding, and it seems that the house wished to separate them.
The next morning the group is calmer but still flummoxed by the past evening’s events. Things become even more concerning when Luke discovers writing on a wall. In huge red letters, the message is “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME.” Eleanor is horrified and blames Theodora, but then apologizes.
Time passes somewhat lazily and uneventfully. The Doctor announces his wife Mrs. Montague will be arriving soon.
That day, Theodora discovers that her fine clothes are covered in thick, smelly red blood. She accuses Eleanor first but realizes she is wrong. She and Eleanor will now share a room, both shaken and nervous. Eleanor wonders what is happening, and realizes she is beginning to absolutely despise Theodora.
In the evening, Eleanor drowses dreamily and seems to say things without knowing what she is saying. That night, she hears a child laughing a rasping, mad little laugh. In the dark, she holds Theodora’s hand, fear filling her. It seems like the child is now being hurt and she begins to shout. Theodora wakes and asks what is wrong, and Eleanor realizes she did not know whose hand she was holding.
The next day, Eleanor sits and talks with Luke, whom she is attracted to but also finds obnoxious. She is jealous of him and Theodora, who seem to talk about her when she cannot hear.
The group finds an old book made by Hugh Crain for his daughter. It is comprised of warnings about the seven deadly sins and has grotesque, inappropriate images.
Theodora and Eleanor snipe at each other and Eleanor runs outside into the dark. Theodora follows and they find themselves on a dark path. They stumble across a spectral scene: a bright and lively family picnic. Theodora screams and pulls Eleanor away; she looks behind her and sees something. The two women flee.
Mrs. Montague and her assistant Arthur arrive. She is brash and assertive, full of plans about contacting the spirits with her planchette (a device like an Ouija board). Arthur is a gruff, bristly man. Mrs. Montague announces she and Arthur will use the library. Dr. Montague does not approve, but she ignores him and talks over him. Eleanor finds her vulgar.
The others are allowed to observe the planchette session. The words that come out are “Eleanor Nellie Nell Nell” and “Home” and “Mother” and “Lost.” Eleanor is frustrated to be singled out again.
Mrs. Montague and Arthur decide to explore the cold spot and the nursery. She asserts that there is no need for fear because she has only love for these spirits and she is here to listen to them and weep for them. The Doctor worries that something is going to happen that night.
The four gather in the doctor’s room. There is a rushing sound in the hallway. Crashing noises are heard in the hallway, then a creeping silence. Eleanor feels like she is dissolving into the house. It seems like the house is destroying itself; Eleanor hears a thin and insane laugh.
The next morning all seems normal. Mrs. Montague and Arthur heard nothing even though they slept in the nursery.
Eleanor tells Theodora that after they leave Hill House she is going to come and live with her. Theodora responds that of course she cannot, and chides her for going where she is not wanted.
In the afternoon, Eleanor grows annoyed at Luke and Theodora. Outside, she watches ghostly footsteps in the grass and hears laughter and voices in her head. She feels held tightly and safely by the house.
Later in the evening, Eleanor realizes she can feel the house moving around her. Mrs. Montague is grumbling that the planchette is saying nothing to her tonight. Eleanor hears a little song sung in a light voice.
That night after everyone has retired, Eleanor slips out of her room, planning to go to the library. It is warm and she calls out to her mother that she is coming. She laughingly pounds on Mrs. Montague’s and Arthur’s doors as she goes, and giggles to hear their gasps within. She hears Theodora scream out that Eleanor is not in the room.
Eleanor runs down the hallway to the library, sneering at how heavy and loud the others sound as they begin coming after her with flashlights. She dances and sings to herself as she enters the library, which is no longer scary to her. She climbs the rickety staircase and feels intoxicated.
The others enter the room and beg her to come down. Luke grudgingly climbs up to help her and Eleanor decides to come down with him. She says she is surprised and just came to get a book.
The next morning, no one says anything about what happened. Eleanor is embarrassed. The doctor says Luke will bring the car around and Theodora will pack up for her. Eleanor tries to resist but Luke tells her she is not welcome anymore.
Eleanor cackles that the life back home that she had told them about was all a lie – she has no cute apartment, white cat, garden, etc. They look at her with frightened faces and she thinks about staying in Hill House forever.
Dr. Montague says her sister is expecting her. Everyone goes outside. She implores the doctor that the house wants her to stay and that she is happy here. The doctor tells her that she must go now.
Everyone says goodbye to Eleanor and she climbs into the car, which feels awkward. She chants to herself that they cannot make her go and Hill House belongs to her. She presses her foot hard on the accelerator and directs the car into the huge tree. One second before it crashes, she wonders why she is doing it.
Mrs. Sanderson is relieved that the group has left. Dr. Montague stops his supernatural studies. Luke goes to Paris. Theodora returns to her roommate. Hill House is not sane and it stands alone in silence. Whatever walks there, walks alone.