A few years ago I read and enjoyed the famous book by Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House. You can find my review of that here. So when a publisher suggested I take a look at a new release coming this fall that had been the first book approved by Jackson’s estate to return to Hill House, I was eager to take a look. A Haunting on the Hill by Elizabeth Hand returns to this famous haunted house, but in the present day. And for those who recall the killer ending of the original – that tree has been cut down, and is merely a stump in this modern-day sequel.
Holly and her girlfriend Nisa are staying in upstate New York, enjoying the fresh air and escape from the city, when Holly stumbles upon a beautifully creepy mansion at the end of a twisty road. Yes, she passed by a trailer with a strange woman wielding a knife on her way up this long driveway, but other than that, the house seems like the perfect place to rent for a few weeks. Despite the weak protestations of the realtor, Holly rents it for two weeks and invites their friend Stevie, and another actress Amanda up to the house to practice a play that Holly is desperately trying to put on and revive her career. As soon as they walk in the door strange developments occur; large black hares appear with human smiles on them, the hallways seems to change and morph into different arrangements and trap people in them, frightened housekeepers refuse to be near the house when it’s dark, and the old standby of a haunted house: drastic temperature fluctuations. But the run-throughs of the play are going great as each actor has miraculously managed to embody their character, even their eyes are changing color to suit the needs of the scene. It only takes a few days of this before the group realizes the mistake they’ve made by coming there, but by then it’s too late.
What makes Hill House so successful is the fact that it’s the house itself that’s to be feared, not necessarily what’s in the house. The caretakers of the house, (including the unhinged gal with the knife) describe the house like it’s a person with motivations, and it wants to keep people inside of it forever. And the house is so powerful that it controls the environment it sits within, not only what goes on inside its walls. Time expands and contracts like a rubber band when people are walking around the grounds, unexplained figures are seen peering at the house through the forest that surrounds it, and the weather is different on the hill compared to the small town below it. In terms of plotting, this book very gradually builds up to the climax of terror, which happens with only a few pages of the book left. Some readers may find that too slow, or wish for catastrophe to strike sooner, but I found this build-up the best part of ghost stories – you know something really scary is going to happen, it’s just a matter of when. And while you’re waiting, the atmosphere is getting increasingly more tense, and the house is gaining power.
The human characters are not as well developed as the real estate ones. This doesn’t detract from the book, in actuality this is very common for novels like this because the author rarely has the time and space to spend on the people who are about to meet their doom. Often characters in this genre will be selfish, or marked as ‘deserving of their death’ in some way, and when one person shines as a beacon of goodness amongst them, it’s because they are going to end up as the one survivor. I won’t say how much death this book results in, but it’s not a bloodbath, and Hill House seems to bring out the worst in every person, so its difficult to say who is deserving of punishment in this book. The entire cast of this play each harbour their own secret desires and pain, and when one is depicted as particularly selfish, we quickly learn about a dirty secret of another, so it’s difficult to pin blame on any one person. I didn’t necessarily connect with any one character, but I cared enough about them to get caught up in their motions of escape when the time came.
This was the perfect spooky book to kick off my October reading, and it has gotten me in the mood to read even more chilling tales in the next few weeks. Let me know in the comments if you have any scary books on the go right now, I’d love to hear about them.