Book Review

A Haunting on the Hill by Elizabeth Hand


Genre: Gothic, Horror

Theme: Retelling

A Haunting on the Hill is a horror novel set in the same mansion as Shirley Jackson’s classic The Haunting of Hill House. There are brief references to the events in Jackson’s novel and a snippet of her dialogue, but those were the only things connecting the two books.

 For me, this was an excellent, creepy book that worked well as a standalone, but I think people especially nostalgic for The Haunting of Hill House and wanting to return to that world might be disappointed. Aside from a shared setting, and a few references to the original work, this novel didn’t remind me much of Jackson’s book.

Holly Sherwin is a teacher by day, but her real passion is playwriting. She’s working on a new play, The Witching Night, based on the real-life case of a woman burned for witchcraft. She was awarded a grant and is using that money to rent a mansion called Hill House where she will host a residency to finalize her play. Staying with Holly is her girlfriend, Nisa, who is composing and singing original murder ballads that will appear in the play; her friend and sound engineer, Stevie; and Amanda Greer, an actress with a dark past who will be playing the lead role.

Holly is warned against renting Hill House by the locals, including the housekeeper who never stays past sunset. True to horror conventions, Holly ignores all of this and moves forward with her plans for the residency.

Also true to the original, Hill House is a character in itself, ominous and “demented” in one character’s words. It seems alive, sinister, and hungry. The layout of the house makes no sense, some rooms have cold spots, and Holly and her group hear strange voices at night. Things are very clearly wrong with the place, and yet everyone stays, their judgment infected by Hill House’s malignancy.

As a standalone horror novel, A Haunting on the Hill is great. It’s scary without violence or gore, and as I was reading it kept steeling myself for a jump scare even though I really don’t get those in books. I was tense in the fun “OMG this is spooky way.” At one point, Stevie finds a tiny little door in the baseboard of his room, and from there things spiral into the delightfully weird and frightening.

So if you are looking for a classic haunted house story that’s scary without being violent, then this is a really great book. If you’re looking for a read influenced by some nostalgia for The Haunting of Hill House, then this book might disappoint.

For me, The Haunting of Hill House was always less of a haunted house book and more of a haunted person book. Eleanor Vance, the main character, has spent her adult life caring for an unpleasant, ailing mother, only to find herself with no real home or life of her own when her mother passes. She sleeps on a cot in her niece’s bedroom, living with a sister and brother-in-law who barely tolerate her. Eleanor is painfully lonely and has very little sense of self.

Eleanor is an empty vessel for the strange spirit of Hill House to fill. She’s occupied a traditional gender role (caring for an aging parent) that has left her depleted and lifeless, and so while others are terrified at the goings-on at Hill House, to a degree Eleanor is delighted to feel anything even if that experience is undeniably toxic. Add to that Eleanor and fellow guest Theo’s implied queerness and The Haunting of Hill House has a lot to unpack about female gender roles and sexual identity, all wrapped up in the guise of a haunted house story.

A Haunting on the Hill really doesn’t have those layers. There’s references to a fetch, a creature similar to a witch’s familiar that is an empty vessel which could be a reference to Eleanor, and the three of the characters are queer, but that’s about it. This is, more or less, just a really good haunted house story. If you want the more that makes The Haunting of Hill House a classic, you’re bound to be disappointed.

Now, personally, sometimes I just want a really good haunted house story. What’s behind that tiny door? Tell me! I want to be scared! For me, this book was a lot of fun and made for excellent spooky season reading. I think most readers who love all those elements and are seeking similarly spooky stories will feel the same way.


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A Haunting on the Hill by Elizabeth Hand

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  1. DonnaMarie says:

    I’m intrigued, and it’s been long enough since I read the source material that I can probably read this without comparisons. And I need another spooky read for this week. Thanks for the review, Elyse.

    Aside: The original movie version of Shirley Jackson’s story, THE HAUNTING (1963), remains the scariest movie ever made. No special effects other than sound and camera angles and this finely drawn line of tension. After my brothers finally saw it (Saturday afternoon matinee movies as opposed to alone at 11 o’clock at night babysitting), they took great pleasure when they came home late to bang on the wall that my bedroom shared with the hallway as they made to their rooms. Bastards. I love those guys.

  2. Kris says:

    I agree @DonnaMarie. The Haunting still terrifies me. The hand holding scene is the stuff of nightmares. Everything about that movie creeps me out…the music, the camera angles, the house being its own character….chills. Robert Wise ,the director ,and all the actors deserve kudos for that film.

    I also thought the Netflix series was exceptionally scary as well.

    The Haunting on the Hill is thankfully available at my library.

  3. Lisa F says:

    Intriguing! On my TBR pile.

  4. Lisa D says:

    I recall reading Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting on vacation at my grandmother’s house. In her spooky, old Victorian house where it was just her, my sister, and my cranky old aunt. Loved it, but could only read during the day. This is going on my TBR list.

  5. cat_blue says:

    With the understanding that this is not in any way a ‘sequel’ to Jackson’s novel, I still wanna read it. I too sometimes just crave a good haunted house story (and we’ve been getting a great harvest of ’em in the past few years!) and this sounds deeply intriguing. Plus, I’m just not ready to let Spooky Season go yet.

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