A HAUNTING ON THE HILL, by Elizabeth Hand
As Holly, the protagonist of Elizabeth Hand’s “A Haunting on the Hill,” approaches an imposing, deserted mansion tucked off a remote country road, she drives past a tree stump that’s “choked with poison ivy, a riot of scarlet leaves and white berries.” Though she doesn’t know it yet, the tree that once stood there claimed the life of Eleanor Vance, the tragic lead from the novel’s antecedent text, Shirley Jackson’s wildly influential “The Haunting of Hill House.” And so, a couple dozen pages into the book, Hand makes her first decisive mark on Jackson’s landscape, acknowledging her predecessor while making the house her own. When Jackson left Hill House, the tree was still standing. Hand is here to chop it down.
Holly finds herself so taken with the property that she decides to rent it for a few weeks, planning to use the space to rehearse her new play, “Witching Night,” a feminist reimagining of a 17th-century text about a woman who made a pact with the Devil. She’s joined by her girlfriend Nisa, a gifted singer-songwriter adapting English murder ballads for the production, and her friend Stevie, who’ll pull double duty as both Satan and sound designer. Rounding out the cast is Amanda, an aging actress who’s barely worked since her murky involvement in a fatal onstage accident years before. All four are unmoored, seeking purpose through art, and vulnerable to the machinations of an evil house with motives of its own.
Like the poison ivy that curls around the tree stump, the house winds its tendrils around the new occupants. All was not well among the foursome even before their arrival at Hill House — secret affairs, conflicts over artistic ownership — and the strife ramps up once they take residence. Amanda, vain and paranoid, becomes convinced that the voices she hears in the night are her younger collaborators gossiping about her; Nisa fears her contributions to the play are being erased; and Stevie becomes enchanted by (and afraid of) a tiny, inexplicable door in the wall of his room.
Hand, the author of 14 novels, including “Hokuloa Road,” has long been preoccupied with the notion of artistic creation as a form of folk magic or conjuring, one that exacts its toll on body, mind or spirit. “A Haunting on the Hill” is shot through with that witchy sacrifice. In early rehearsals, the troupe feeds on the house’s spooky vibes, producing electrifying, transcendent work. But nothing gold can stay, not in this house, and the characters are soon beset by increasingly terrifying events: strange slippages of time, photos and recordings that turn out distorted, odd noises and apparitions, and huge, uncanny black hares that haunt the property. Even warnings from the housekeeper and an ominous neighbor aren’t enough to roust them from the house, though: The drive to recapture that magic of creation holds them captive.
In Jackson’s story, the rotten, beating heart was never the house itself. It was damaged, doomed Eleanor, newly freed from a cruel mother, whose desperate neediness and formless identity opened the door to a mad kinship with the house, a sort of demented ouroboros of domestic bliss. Hand opens up the playing field: We don’t know which, if any, of her characters might succumb to the house, which refracts and amplifies all their flaws and insecurities.
There are some direct echoes of Jackson’s novel here — Stevie’s recording equipment picks up a bit of dialogue pulled from the pages of “Hill House,” and both the nursery and the tower host key scenes of terror. For the most part, though, Hand is responding to the source material on a deeper level, echoing Jackson’s structure, characterization and storytelling beats rather than relying on superficial similarities. (The closest she comes to imitation is in the novel’s short prologue, a direct answer to Jackson’s opening paragraph of “Hill House.”) And, above all, it’s scary. Hand’s facility with language and atmosphere and use of short, propulsive chapters work their own dark magic on the reader.
It’s a compelling and frightening novel, but did it need to take place in Jackson’s universe? Probably not — and that’s why it works. A lesser writer might’ve paid more overt homage to “The Haunting of Hill House,” or tried to imitate Jackson’s singular prose style. Hand, wisely, does no such thing, opting for resonance over replication. In a landscape of soulless franchises geared toward quick, shallow hits of fan service, she has the maturity and talent to deliver the follow-up that Jackson’s novel deserves (even if it didn’t necessarily need one).
Like Jackson, Hand offers no explanation for Hill House’s malevolence, preserving the original novel’s power and mystery. The tree that claimed Eleanor’s life may now be a stump, but it’s a boundary marker all the same. Continue up the drive past this point and you’ll see Hill House — and it will see you, too.
A HAUNTING ON THE HILL | By Elizabeth Hand | Mulholland Books | 336 pp. | $27