What’s even more terrifying than reading Shirley Jackson’s gripping 1959 classic of psychological horror, “The Haunting of Hill House”? Try staking a claim on that legendary house as a writer. In “A Haunting on the Hill,” Elizabeth Hand takes on that daunting task, revisiting the world of Jackson’s formidable imagination.

In her updated return to one of the creepiest settings in fiction, Hand has the tricky job of pleasing both devoted Jackson fans and newcomers. Many writers have pilfered from classic works, of course. “Demon Copperhead” (Barbara Kingsolver’s terrific homage to “David Copperfield”), “The Wide Sargasso Sea” (Jean Rhys’s reimagining of the tragic wife from “Jane Eyre”), and a gaggle riding Jane Austen’s coattails, including “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” and “Death Comes to Pemberley,” to name just a few.

Hand, who divides her time between Maine and London, clearly adores Jackson’s Hill House, and her writing shines in creepy passages (pun intended) that evoke the claustrophobic, unsettling nature of the place:

“Even with the phone’s light, the corridor was so dark that I had to keep one hand pressed against the wall to find my way. The foul smell from the hall was stronger here – it filled my nostrils until I nearly gagged, then abruptly dissipated. I felt Stevie’s fingers on my neck, steering me forward, then stroking my hair as he whispered Here, or maybe Hair.”

But are those really her friend Stevie’s fingers that our heroine feels? Hand gets a lot of mileage out of those dim, clammy passages, as her characters lose themselves, encounter the inexplicable, and stumble after each other in the dark.

Jackson’s heroine is the sheltered, unreliable Eleanor Vance, who is invited to Hill House to help investigate the house’s paranormal characteristics. Hand gives us Holly Sherwin, a struggling playwright who rents the remote Hill House to use as an artistic retreat while she and her friends workshop her new play (it’s about witches, naturally).


Hand plants us vividly in our current era, with all its attendant pressures. Holly stumbles onto Hill House while on an upstate getaway with her girlfriend (queer undercurrents in Jackson’s novel are brought to light in this update), visiting friends who moved out of the city during the pandemic. The gentrifying towns in the region have fancy coffee, steep housing prices, stressed locals and plenty of artsy transplants from the city:

“People who distilled rare liqueurs from echinacea and comfrey, or made syrup out of white pine needles, or wove intricate rings and brooches from your own hair, charging what I earned as a teacher in a month. A very good month.”

While she can’t afford to buy a house, thanks to an arts grant Holly can rent a retreat for two weeks. This is what makes her early willingness to ignore the warnings about Hill House believable. Holly desperately wants time and space to hone a work that could bring her long-overdue critical recognition.

Hand makes nods to Jackson’s original work, Easter eggs that will please fans. A misread sign spotted on route to the house, touches that are mistaken for human, dreadful sounds recorded in the nursery that, on further manipulation, carry the voices of long-ago inhabitants. Technology offers new tools for investigation – and for scares. (And in a turn of events sure to strike terror into the hearts of many, cell phone reception is so spotty the actors are unable to post photos to their Instagram pages).

Each of the new inhabitants of Hill House carries secrets and old wounds. Along with Holly and her girlfriend, Nisa, a talented, driven singer-songwriter, we meet Holly’s old friend Stevie, a charismatic actor and sound engineer. Stevie has struggled with addiction and memories of childhood abuse – he also knows Nisa more intimately than Holly imagines. The fourth member of the troupe is Amanda Greer, an actor in her 60s with shades of Norma Desmond, her reputation tainted by a murky incident in which another actor fell from a set and died.

Holly herself is haunted by the fallout from a one-night stand she had with a woman 20 years before. Her date shared a bone-chilling tale about a ghostly/demonic seduction and pregnancy, which Holly repurposed in her first play. The woman publicly accused Holly of appropriation and then committed suicide, a calamity that Holly finds tragic for reasons both personal and professional:


“Thinking about Macy-Lee chilled me even more than the cold morning did: I hunched deeper into my coat, walking faster to warm myself. I’d always felt deep sorrow and guilt and shame. Yet I’d never regretted writing Knell/Nell. My long creative silence had been fueled by fear, that I wouldn’t be able to write something as good as that one play – and also a subdued grief. For Macy-Lee, and also for myself, the young artist who’d been so vulnerable, poised for a flight that never came.

“It was the pressure of being here, I thought. I’d hoped – assumed – that being at Hill House would restore my confidence, bring my work to the next level. Instead, I felt anxious and on edge, envisioning Macy-Lee staring at me, her black eyes sparkling in the firelight, as something mewled and crawled toward us from the shadows.”

Anxious and edgy indeed. (And truly chilling. Macy-Lee’s story is one of the most riveting here, worthy of its own book). Other characters wrestle with their own demons and obstacles to their creative dreams. In their relationship, Holly and Nisa toggle between supportive and competitive, and each visitor encounters Grade A frights, alone and together. The moody house increases their paranoia and mistrust. In spite of it all, in their work they reach new heights of performance and artistry – brilliance draws tantalizingly near.

Ultimately, Holly is willing to sacrifice her own safety – and that of her lover and friends – in service of her play. But what prompts the others to stay? The fundamental horror story question: why don’t our flawed heroes heed the warnings and hit the road? Like Holly, they’re all chasing artistic transcendence.

We live in maximalist times and Hand throws a lot at her characters, who encounter everything from a coven of witches and their hare familiars, to a beguiling and treacherous “Alice in Wonderland”-like magic door, to an ominous billiard ball. And that’s in addition to the sinister domestic disturbances charted by Jackson and echoed here.

How you feel about this abundance of scares is a matter of taste and temperament. Some readers will eagerly devour each menacing twist, while others may miss Jackson’s restraint, her vision powered by an ambiguity that stirred uneasy readers to wonder just who was doing the haunting – the house itself or troubled Eleanor?

Here, it is most definitely the house. Late in the book, contemplating the reception for her play, Holly observes that the market loves the unexplained disappearance of a beautiful young person. Yes, and the market loves a modernized classic, too.

Jackson’s book is still read and beloved 65  years after its publication – and is almost impossible to top. Time will tell whether Hand’s Hill House achieves such longevity, but it’s understandable that a contemporary artist would want to swing open that heavy door. Hand offers a reimagining of Hill House that’s both an homage to its original architecture and an exploration of present-day anxieties. Enter if you dare.

Genanne Walsh is the author of a novel, “Twister,” and a nonfiction chapbook, “Eggs in Purgatory.” She lives in Portland.

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