Like many folks with a lifelong fondness for horror, Shirley Jackson’s elegant, unnerving The Haunting of Hill House holds an extra-special place in my heart. Not just scary for the unknowable motivations of the notorious house and the intense atmosphere of personal terrors it conjures for each of its inhabitants, but there’s also the soul-crushing psychic soup of mental disintegration that it encourages as the house takes further hold. It’s heady, intense stuff, and one of my favorite haunted house stories.
I never necessarily thought that we needed a return to Hill House but when I learned that Elizabeth Hand was authorized by Shirley Jackson’s estate to write such a story, I’ll admit, I was pretty excited. Her short stories are incredible–“Near Zennor” (found here) being a particular favorite of mine. A weird, supernatural mystery wherein a grieving widow is driven to learn more about a secret part of his wife’s past, it affected me to such a degree that I made a creepy little playlist for it. Wyldling Hall, a book about a folk band recording in a strange, remote house and the tragedies that happened there, is another favorite of mine from this author. If anyone is to be working with Hill House material, I would trust Elizabeth Hand implicitly–she knows a thing or two about creating immersive, eerie atmospheres and disturbingly uncanny happenings.
In A Haunting On The Hill, Holly is a struggling playwright who has been awarded a grant, and, being in the area and happening upon the expansive opulence of Hill House, she immediately falls under its spell. She becomes convinced that it would be a grand idea to rent it out for a few weeks and invite a group of her actors and collaborators to work on her current project together. The intimate gathering, sequestered away from the bothers of the world for a time, would afford everyone the opportunity to appreciate the material and put their own spin on it and sink into their roles, etc. Along for the ride is Nisa, Holly’s girlfriend, a singer with a beautiful voice that Holly doesn’t want to give too much of the limelight to; Amanda, a prickly older actress with a bit of a cult following and a reputation because of an on-stage tragedy she is linked to; and Stevie, Holly’s best friend, a sensitive and vulnerable individual who is going to do sound design and play the part of a demon-dog. A demon-dog! Yes, this is a play about witchcraft!
Once ensconced in its oppressive walls, the group begins to realize that the space is not as luxurious as it might have initially appeared. Rooms are dimly lit, dusty, and damp. There are more rooms and twisting hallways than would seem possible, and it is easly to become lost, alone, and open to the awful energies of the place. All of the members of the troupe begin to encounter varying degrees of strange and terrifying weirdness inside Hill House but because of their various agendas and commitments, they each have their own reasons for looking the other way (or in some cases, leaning into it) and seeing it through.
They are warned repeatedly to leave the house by people who live locally and who know its history and what always happens there. The realtor who owns the house, the woman who occasionally cleans the house and who drops off meals for Holly and her guests, as well as the eccentric individual who lives in a trailer down the road and who initially chased Holly with an axe on the first day she saw the house. As it happens, this trio all knows each other, and they may be witches, too! Although I am not sure how much that actually figures into the story.
Did Elizabeth Hand do the Hill House material justice? I didn’t go into this book with this question in mind because I wanted an Elizabeth Hand story, not another story by Shirley Jackson. But I’m sure that will be on the minds of a lot of people who are interested in reading the book. She did an outstanding job of evoking the house’s sickening nature, and how it affects/infects each individual so differently depending on the neuroses and trauma that they bring with them into the house. I thrilled to the way that we got to experience Hill House’s terrible corridors again through contemporary eyes and modern sensibilities. And while I did find some of the characters absolutely insufferable, I think all of the personalities worked within the context of the story, and also, that’s just people, right? There’s one or two in every friend group that are annoying and unbearable. And if you care about such things, the whole story is absolutely bewitched with gorgeously golden autumnal vibes and haunting harvest-filtered imagery–which makes it an incredibly perfect October afternoon read.
Some bonus material, related to books and reading: Elizabeth over at Reading Wryly chats about the Autumnal/Winter horror releases she’s most excited about!
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