Review: A Haunting on the Hill

By Elizabeth Hand; reviewed by Jeannette Hartman

A HAUNTING ON THE HILL is a modernized revival of Shirley Jackson’s magnificent 1959 gothic horror novel, THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE.

Author Elizabeth Hand has a gift for the dark and atmospheric, whether the setting is Maine in early winter as in GENERATION LOSS or a Hawaiian tropical paradise turned menacing in HOKULOA ROAD.

In Jackson’s version, four people gather in Hill House to investigate whether supernatural happenings occur in the brooding Victorian mansion.

In Hand’s redux, playwright Holly Sherwin brings together her lover, singer Nisa Macari; actress Amanda Greer; and sound engineer Stevie Liddell to rehearse and polish a play in preparation for a New York City showcase.

Holly discovered the house while visiting friends in upstate New York who raved about the rural life. On a barely visible road, she’d discovered the house at the top of a hill with amazing views. The building was so ugly it seemed almost handsome (jolie laide, as the French would say).

But despite its gem-like setting, there’s something off. The deep veranda wrapping around the building keeps light from reaching first floor rooms. What Holly can see through the dusty windows are disorderly rooms with a mishmosh of furniture.

Despite the drawbacks — the remote location, its hulking size, the lack of furniture and the dust — Holly is entranced.

Using grant money awarded to her play, Holly persuades the reluctant owner Ainsley Rowan to rent it to her for several weeks. Ainsley’s warnings that previous tenants have not been happy there and have left early goes unheeded.

Holly’s play, “The Witching Hour,” is loosely based on a story about a witch, Elizabeth Sawyer, who makes a deal with the devil in the form of Tomasin, a black dog, for the power to vanquish the men who have harassed and abused her.

Each of the actors come with baggage from the past and ambitions and tensions about their roles in the play.

Amanda hasn’t had a major role in 12 years after her co-star in a performance of “Medea” fell to his death from a catwalk both were standing on. As a child, Stevie appeared as the Artful Dodger in a performance of “Oliver!”, where he was sexually abused by an older actor. He irregularly works as a sound engineer or an actor, sublets his apartment and couch-surfs with friends. Nisa and Holly have had conflicts about Nisa writing and singing murder ballads to give atmosphere to the play.

For Holly, the play is a break in a two-decades long dry spell in her writing while spending her days teaching English in a private school.

Amanda hopes her role as the witch Elizabeth Sawyer will give her career a fresh start. She has no intention of letting either Stevie or Nisa upstage her. Nisa and Stevie have had an affair that they’ve never confessed to Holly.

The central character in this version, as in Jackson’s original, is the house itself.

Some of the unsettling elements in this version seem natural enough: the lack of sunlight, the badly constructed turret that isn’t safe to enter, inner hallways without light switches, bedrooms with garishly colored, sloppy paint rolled over wall paper, and Victorian wainscotting in rooms furnished with Ikea furniture.

But others are decidedly supernatural: a drop of wine split at dinner that keeps flowing like blood. Enormous black hares that appear and disappear or a hot wind that pants over people who walk outdoors.

Not everyone who enters the house on the hill leaves.

Like the best updates of older stories, this one brings new characters, situations and dynamics to the original while keeping the brooding, threatening atmosphere of Jackson’s original Hill House.

The Author: Elizabeth Hand

Elizabeth Hand has written more than 19 novels and collections of short fiction that cross and blend genres. Her books include HOKULOA ROAD, THE BOOK OF LAMPS AND BANNERS, and WYLDING HALL.

Her updating of THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE was authorized by Laurence Jackson Hyman, Jackson’s son and literary executor.

Hand is a three-time winner of the Shirley Jackson Award, a four-time winner of the World Fantasy Award, a two-time winner of the Nebula Award as well as winning the James M. Tiptree Jr. and Mythopoeic Society awards.

As a critic and essayist, her work has been published by the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Salon, Boston Review and the Village Voice, among others.

She divides her time between coastal Maine and North London.

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