First, a warning: If you are alone while you are reading this book, do not read it after it gets dark. I don’t care how good your motion-sensor lights, your security system and your Ring doorbell are; just don’t do it to yourself. Trust me.
2023’s A Haunting on the Hill, by master writer Elizabeth Hand, is an indirect sequel to another master writer’s classic work, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Hand uses the same house to tell a different story, set seventy years after the original, as Hill House continues to work its evil. The flavor of Hill House is similar to Jackson’s—similarly disturbing, similarly terrifying, but the story and the characters, with their cracks and dark places, are new and original. Hand brings in a new element as well, with the subject of the play, witchcraft, and the presence of the three local women associated with the house.
Before I plunge into the superlatives, here’s the plot synopsis. Holly Sherwin is a playwright whose early effort died mired in controversy and scandal. Until recently she taught at a private school, but for the past couple of years she has worked on a play inspired by a real-life witch trial in England. Holly has received a grant to develop the play. On a celebratory weekend in upstate New York, a restless, sleepless Holly leaves her warm bed and her sleeping girlfriend Nisa and goes for a drive. On impulse she turns on a dirt road and climbs into the hills, where she finds a deserted mansion. The place is huge and in some ways grotesque. Holly is captivated, and loses nearly four hours in contemplation of the place. In spite of a reluctant property manager, Ainsley, who it turns out also owns the house, Holly successfully rents it for two weeks, and assembles her players; Amanda, a grand dame stage actor who, in the face of advancing age, clings to her tiny bit of fame and privilege; Stevie, an actor and sound engineer, riddled with anxiety from a trauma in his past, and Nisa, Holly’s gifted, ambitious singer girlfriend, who lends her distinctive voice to the old ballads and original songs that punctuate Holly’s play.
If losing nearly four hours wasn’t enough of a red flag for our quartet, they get a few other warnings. When Holly first drives up the road, a woman comes out of a double wide trailer and chases her car, brandishing a kitchen knife. A strange species of black hare, larger than most hares, appears on the road and around the house, often standing up on hind legs (which hares do) but then growing to the size of a human. Later, a hare gets into the house in a way that is terrifying and impossible. But the house itself changes, not only to everyone—doors appearing where there wasn’t one before; hallways changing length and direction—but to each individual; alternately luring and taunting. Stevie, who collects miniatures, finds a tiny secret door near the baseboard in his room. Nisa’s voice, when she sings in various rooms, sounds stronger and wilder, better than it ever has before. Amanda has memories of majestic performances. Reading through the play, the players reach for levels that fuel Holly’s conviction that her play Witching Night will be a triumph. Then there are the mocking, taunting voices, mutilated photos, the tablecloth suddenly stained with blood, the icy spots and the hot spots… and the things that appear in the woods.
Against the increasingly disturbing backdrop of the house, the three local women, Ainsley, the cleaner Melissa, and Evadne (she of the butcher knife) are a baffling counter-element. MacBeth’s Three Sisters are evoked, and correctly. Each of the women warns the party against the house, outright telling them to leave, but Ainsley is the one who rented it to them. Are they in league with the house? Are they split among themselves? Are they opposing the house, but limited in their ability to do so? The story is intentionally unclear, leaving us with this image late in the book’s most terrifying section:
Nisa had seen the black shape outside one of the windows from where she crouched beside the staircase: a sinuous shadow that slid across the veranda and then flung itself against the glass. As she watched in horror, two other shapes joined it, all three leaping repeatedly at the windows, then the doors, striving to get in.
The hares, she thought, giddy with terror. They’ve come to kill us.
As with Jackson’s original work, the house affects everyone, but troubled people are easier for it, and Hand has given us a convincing group of those. Nisa commits tiny transgressions, like sneaking into Amanda’s room and using her lipstick. Nisa’s ambition has reached the point that she sincerely believes that her songs are the only thing that make Holly’s play worthwhile, and she’s cheated on Holly with Stevie. Amanda wrestles with the memory of a death on the set of her version of Medea. Was it an accident? Amanda says it was. Holly’s commitment to her play leaves her friends in actual danger, all the while rationalizing that “they’ve never done better work.” Stevie’s memory of sexual assault by a castmate when Stevie was a child, and his hyper-vigilance, flares into outright paranoia.
Reading this, I knew beyond doubt that the house consumes anyone that stays within its sphere, no matter how “well adjusted” they might be. These four, though, provide more than a tasty meal of guilt and secrets. The magic ingredient is the play, and Holly is not self-deluding when she discusses its brilliance. Yes, I may have lain awake after I finished this book, listening hard at every creak, tick and sigh of our single-story 1970s-era tract home, but what stayed with me, and still stays with me, is the magic of Witching Night. The juxtaposition of Holly’s prose and the creepiness of the story with the internal workings of the actors creates a silvery fire of creativity, shining out against the looming shadows of the house. And, of course, inflaming the house’s appetite even more. Creativity, like magic, is a seductive form of power, and it draws to itself the best of things… and the very worst.
Hand has pulled off a tour de force. The book is as viscerally disturbing as its ancestor; it is a dark and deep meditation about creativity, its power and its danger, and a master class in characterization. Read it for the creepiness. Think about it later for the power of creativity. In the sunlight.