Listening for Echoes of Eleanor: On Elizabeth Hand’s “A Haunting on the Hill”

By Shannon ScottApril 9, 2024

Listening for Echoes of Eleanor: On Elizabeth Hand’s “A Haunting on the Hill”

A Haunting on the Hill by Elizabeth Hand

THE CULT OF Shirley Jackson has grown robust and voracious in the 21st century. Fans can purchase mugs, tote bags, and scented candles featuring Jackson’s quotes and signature cat eyeglasses. There are conferences, tours, and awards in her name. If that isn’t proof enough of her legacy, Elisabeth Moss gained weight to play her in the 2020 biopic Shirley. A genius of American gothic fiction, Jackson is widely regarded as a woman ahead of her time, and occasionally, a witch. Hardcore fans of Jackson’s fiction experience both anticipation and skepticism when yet another adaptation or spin-off surfaces. As a tote bag–carrying fan of Jackson, I approached Elizabeth Hand’s 2023 novel A Haunting on the Hill—a continuation of Jackson’s 1959 The Haunting of Hill House—with high expectations. By and large, I was not disappointed. A Haunting on the Hill contains solid scares, an abundance of occult elements, and a satisfying number of Easter eggs from the urtext. However, it works best when read as an homage to Shirley Jackson, a writer whose characters continue to haunt us and whose genius continues to inspire new work.

In an interview with Olivia Rutigliano for CrimeReads, Hand makes it clear that A Haunting on the Hill, while being the only “authorized” continuation of the novel sanctioned by the Shirley Jackson estate, is not a sequel. Instead, Hand uses The Haunting of Hill House as a “template,” utilizing drawings of Hill House sketched by Shirley Jackson to create an “existing stage set.” This comparison to the stage is appropriate since Hand’s novel centers on a group of theater people. Holly is a playwright; Amanda and Stevie are actors; and Holly’s girlfriend, Nisa, is a songwriter and vocalist. The group rents Hill House 60 years after Eleanor’s death in order to rehearse Holly’s new play, Witching Night.

When approaching adaptations of and homages to Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, perhaps the hardest expectation to let go of is the main protagonist, Eleanor, as Jackson created her: lonely, anxious, hopeful, thwarted. Readers both sympathize and cringe as she lurches from one awkward social encounter to another, constantly second-guessing herself. In Jackson’s novel, Eleanor has never been courted, let alone had a boyfriend. She was the primary caregiver to her ill and irritable mother, feeding her oatmeal, washing filthy sheets, and reading aloud romance novels, all while her sister got married and started a family. She’s 32 when her mother finally dies and she goes on her adventure to Hill House. By the time she arrives there, Eleanor has been escaping reality in her fantasies for so long that she’s mostly living in one.

In Hand’s novel, Holly replaces Eleanor as the main protagonist. Hand begins with Holly’s first-person perspective, which provides an intimacy similar to Jackson’s largely third-person limited point of view with Eleanor. Holly is a playwright grasping for a second chance at success after receiving a grant for her new play. She works at a private school in Queens and lives in an apartment with her sexy girlfriend Nisa. She has a BFA from a top drama school and was once included in Forbes’s “30 Under 30” list of notables. However, she’s in a creative rut, still recovering from the shame of past career failure. Still, Holly’s accomplishments, her education, her job, her friends, her partner, and their apartment together make her very different from Eleanor; it’s hard to experience the same dread while watching her enter a place like Hill House. Holly is not so unstable and damaged, nor is she alone in the world with seemingly nothing to lose—but she does have an “urgent ambition” not to let another shot at fame pass her by.

Despite Holly’s differences from Jackson’s Eleanor, she has her “Eleanor moment” when pondering her future at the Cup and Saucer in Hillsdale. Hand’s novel shifts from first person to third: Stevie has vertigo staring up at the house’s tower, Nisa climbs the library staircase, Amanda loses consciousness in the parlor. These events expand the sense of vulnerability and instability that permeates Eleanor’s personality in Jackson’s novel to include all the characters in Hand’s. We experience more inclusive supernatural encounters as each character, with their respective frailties and weaknesses, succumbs to the malice of Hill House.

In addition to revisiting Jackson’s setting, Hand strives to maintain Jackson’s gothic tone and dark humor, demonstrating her skill as a writer and her devotion to the cult of Jackson. Hand’s introduction and conclusion effectively recreate the sentient, malevolent quality of Jackson’s Hill House, with a repetition that occurs in the opening and closing paragraphs of the new novel. Jackson’s famous opening description of Hill House as “not sane,” which is echoed in her conclusion, is admired by many writers for its brilliance and sense of impending doom. Stephen King called it “the sort of quiet epiphany every writer hopes for: words that somehow transcend the sum of the parts.” Taking up the challenge, Hand describes Hill House as a place that “neither sleeps nor dreams,” providing the necessary foreboding for a haunted house novel, if not the “quiet epiphany.” Hand also replicates Jackson’s atmosphere of secrets, lies, mistrust, and paranoia, maintaining the delightfully uncomfortable catfights between two strong-willed women, present in Jackson’s original between Eleanor and Theodora, while also adding an unsteady catwalk to the already unsteady library staircase. There is suicide and substance abuse and sleep paralysis and disassociation. The paranormal occurrences are second-guessed by all the characters but generally accepted as fact once the house actually consumes someone—a fear Eleanor articulates early in Jackson’s novel: “I am like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster […] and the monster feels my tiny little movements inside.” Hand takes Eleanor’s fear literally and gives readers (as well as the house) a lot to digest.

In Hand’s novel, like Jackson’s, there are unpleasantly colored rooms (now badly wallpapered), uncanny door knockers, unexplainable pounding on the walls, substances that may or may not be blood, and deadly mushrooms (a nod to Merricat from Jackson’s 1962 novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle). There are references to Bluebeard and Lot’s wife as well as a black dog and hares (not one small rabbit but a huge herd of hares that are not benevolent pookas). Yet Hand takes the paranormal out of the domestic and into the occult more than Jackson does, so the devil is present along with a coven of witches. Plus, it’s the 21st century, meaning there’s more technology and weed gummies and characters who identify as “neo-pagan adjacent.” For continuity, there is still a healthy suspicion of locals, with a knife-wielding trailer-trash caretaker who hates “summer people” and apparently autumn people too—basically anyone who rents Hill House and doesn’t heed their vague and violent warnings.

Most compelling and original to Hand’s novel is the parallel between acting and possession. Amanda, an aging actress whose desperate attempts to dispel comparisons to Norma Desmond only cement the connection, informs the others: “We’re the ones haunting it […] Actors, we channel the spirits. What do you think acting is? Bringing the dead to life.” This idea is essential to Hand’s novel: while we know Hill House to be “demented” or containing “ill will,” actors channeling spirits creates the possibility that the characters in Witching Night, a play allegedly based on the real-life story of a woman accused and killed for witchcraft in the 17th century, may also be part of the haunting. Indeed, acting, plays, toy stages, and musical scores featuring old murder ballads distinguish A Haunting on the Hill from The Haunting of Hill House. While Jackson includes references throughout her novel to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Hand fittingly selects the Scottish play, with its Weird Sisters, as the primary Shakespearean reference, further including twisted additions like Harvey and Medea that emphasize the in-jokes and gossip of those immersed in the theater.

In Jackson’s novel, there is an element of performativity to Eleanor. She wants to be perceived by others, she crafts her behavior, she tries to control the narrative until she can’t control anything at all. In A Haunting on the Hill, the artists and actors are invested in how their audience perceives them, but more so they want to turn themselves over to their characters, illustrating a willingness to “abdicate” the self, a submission to being possessed that Hill House so desires. In a possible nod to Robert Eggers’s 2015 film The Witch, one of the main characters in Witching Night is the devil taking the form of a black dog named Tomasin. As the cast reads through the play, the scenes become more akin to Francis Ford Coppola’s cast dinners that were really character rehearsals for The Godfather (1972). Stevie plays Tomasin in Witching Night, and he becomes all too ready to slip into his devilish character’s mindset: “It would be good to disappear into him, slough off this exhausted, human form and sink into another, stronger one.” When Stevie takes on Tomasin’s personality, essentially inviting the devil inside, he becomes dangerous. According to Nisa, it’s like “someone else had slid inside him, to stare out from Stevie’s eyes.” In Hand’s novel, the ambiguity over whether the house is possessing Eleanor transforms into an exploration of characters possessing actors inside a house possessed by a play. In this way, Hand’s novel is more than a clever tribute to Jackson; it’s original and sinister and occasionally brilliant.

Without giving away too much, Hand does bring Eleanor, or an echo of her, into the novel briefly. It’s an effectively spooky encounter that should have Jackson fans and general readers fully engaged. If Hugh Crain served as a layer of the past in Hill House that Eleanor, Theo, Luke, and Dr. Montague had tread and dance over and try and fail to wrap their minds around, then Eleanor adds another layer to Hill House for the new tenants to contend with.

Jackson’s conclusion provides no happy endings or lessons about love and friendship, where survivors rebuild their lives or family members learn to “walk together,” not alone. It was always going to be Eleanor, on her own, in a car she took from sister, being sent away from the people and the place she had hoped would be a new start, and it ended the only way that it could without pandering. More recent adaptations and continuations, including Hand’s, have been kinder to their characters.

Yet the character that surpasses them all, in Hand and Jackson, remains the one that can manipulate their pain, trigger PTSD, and cause the screaming meemies. It’s the watchful, spiteful, sinister Hill House. In Hand’s novel, a casting agent advises an actor “to inhabit the characters,” adding, “Think of them like a house you’re supposed to live in, not demolish.” In A Haunting on the Hill, Hill House cannot be lived in or demolished, and Method acting only makes one more vulnerable to the monster.

LARB Contributor

Shannon Scott is a professor of English at several universities in the Twin Cities. She has contributed essays to collections published by Manchester University Press and Routledge, as well as created two lecture series for Audible. In addition, Shannon has published short fiction in a variety of journals, including Nightscript, The Other Stories, Nightmare Magazine, and Water~Stone Review. She is co-editor of Terrifying Transformations: An Anthology of Victorian Werewolf Fiction, 1838–1896 (2013).


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