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On Shirley Jackson and Writing A Haunting on the Hill: A Q&A with Elizabeth Hand

Posted on 22nd September 2023 by Mark Skinner

The only follow-up to The Haunting of Hill House officially endorsed by Shirley Jackson's Estate, A Haunting on the Hill brings the iconic ghost story bang up to date with a bone-chilling tale set during lockdown. In this Q&A, the book's author Elizabeth Hand discusses the responsibility that comes with engaging with a classic text and her determination to create a novel that was no mere pastiche. 

You’re a life-long Shirley Jackson fan. When did your reading relationship with her work begin and what makes her such an enduring influence for you?

I read Jackson’s short story Charles in an anthology when I was about eight years old. I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever read. I then read her two collections of humorous pieces about her home life: Life Among the Savages (where Charles appears) and Raising Demons. Then when I was in fourth grade, our class read The Lottery aloud — thank you, Miss Halloran!  And not long after, my mother brought home copies of The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Bird’s Nest from our local library’s book sale. I read and reread those books many times over the years — they feel intrinsic to me as a reader and writer, part of my literary DNA.  

I wanted to be a writer from a very early age — I wanted to write ghost stories — and while Jackson’s work was very different from that of the other writers I absorbed them, people like Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, I think she offered more of a model for how writing could actually be done. I.e., you could write about your large hectic family (I’m the oldest of five), you could write about seemingly normal occurrences and contemporary people and twist them out of shape and make something disturbing and exciting out of them.  

I loved that. I still do.

This is the first time an author has ever been invited to take up the pen and continue the story of Hill House. How did that come about and how did you feel upon being asked?

Murray Weiss, who represents the literary estate, first approached me nine or so years ago about writing a sequel to The Haunting of Hill House. That project never came off, but during the pandemic he got back in touch, and after conferring with Jackson’s son and literary executor, Laurence (the hero of Charles!), we decided to try something new. I was incredibly honored and also felt a huge responsibility to do justice to this novel — a genuinely iconic work. But I also didn’t want to do a pastiche of Jackson’s work, which would have been disastrous. And I didn’t want to do a sequel or prequel involving the same characters. I wanted to focus on Hill House itself as a character — for me, that’s the most original and most unsettling element of the book.    

What research did you do before and during the writing process?

I reread The Haunting of Hill House (again), and made a lot of notes, mostly having to do with the geography of the house and grounds. I also read up a bit on the psychology behind haunted houses and wrong places. Why do they distress us, why do we remain in them despite all the warning signs? Laurence sent me scans of his mother’s original sketches of the floors plans for Hill House, and those were a fantastic resource. For whatever reason, they unlocked something in my brain and made me feel as though I had a sort of map through this creepy psychic terrain.

Which elements of the original story were important to you when embarking on this project, and how do the themes of Jackson’s novel play out in yours? 

As I said, Hill House itself was central. I’ve always loved haunted house stories, and this is the mother of them all. I made a decision not to engage with the history of the Crain family, except for a few allusions, and pretty much did the same with the cast from the original novel. I wanted to play with the malevolent nature of the house itself, its architecture and also its psychic architecture, the ways in which it plays upon the desires and weaknesses of anyone who spends time in it. The novel makes passing reference to Strindberg’s one act, two character play The Stronger, in which two women, Madame X and Madame Y, meet in a cafe. One never speaks; the other has a forty-five minute monologue. The play is about betrayal and is also a psychic game of wills: which woman is the stronger?  

At university, I played the speaking role in a student production— very badly, but I remained fascinated by the way in which a character can be undermined by a force that never actually utters a word. I also wanted to lean into the erotic and power dynamic between two central female characters — Eleanor and Dora in Jackson’s novel, Holly and Nisa in mine. Jackson could only allude to the sexual tension between the two, but it was an underlying force in her story.  I was able to present Holly and Nisa’s relationship in a matter-of-fact manner, and focus more on issues of ambition and betrayal instead of sublimated desire (though there’s some of that, too).  

The Covid 19 pandemic is the backdrop to A Haunting on the Hill. Why did you decide to set the novel then?

The pandemic was isolating in so many ways, in many cases trapping people in physical spaces with others — family, friends — with the most vulnerable individuals fracturing under pressure. It seemed such an obvious parallel to what happens in The Haunting of Hill House, but I honestly couldn’t imagine not setting it during the pandemic. I nearly always write through and about my own experiences, and that’s what I had just lived through. It also seemed like the ideal mindset in which paranoia and conspiracy theories can take over, so I played with those elements as well.

Why do you think ghost stories continue to capture our imaginations? 

Ghost stories were probably the very first narratives that humans shared, back around a campfire tens of thousand of years ago. What’s waiting there in the dark? Where do those terrifying figures in our dreams come from? What happens when we die? And what’s that noise? It’s a way to deflect our fears but also to arouse them — which is fun, as long as you stay close to the campfire.

Do you believe in ghosts and have you ever had any paranormal experiences yourself?

I’ve never seen a ghost, but I know people who’ve told me convincing accounts of their own experiences. I believe there are things we can’t explain. I did have a paranormal experience with two friends when we were thirteen, something I wrote about in my novella Near Zennor (which received the Shirley Jackson Award).  

The black hare is such a terrifying image that recurs throughout the novel. What inspired it and what does it represent to you?

The Guardian did an article on the debut album, Ghost Story, by an incredible folk singer, Fern Maddie — they gave it a rave review and linked to her version of the traditional song Hares on the Mountain. I listened to it over and over again — it gave me chills. I was also kind of unnerved because I had used the song’s lyrics as the epigraph for my 1994 novel Waking the Moon. Coincidence? Or was something more sinister at work?

Anyway, I bought the album (and the t-shirt! Two of them!) and had it on heavy rotation while writing A Haunting on the Hill. The imagery of the black hares emerged organically out of that. Hares have long been associated with witches, and there are witches in my book. Also, I have varying hares here at my cottage in Maine and often watch them chase each other around. I think they’re good luck.

Each of Holly, Nessa, Amanda and Stevie are, in a sense, haunted before they come to Hill House. Did you find one character particularly enjoyable or challenging to write?

They were all fun to write, but Amanda is probably the most fun to read aloud.  I love to do live readings, and she’s a hoot.  I get to channel all my hammy bad actor experiences into her.

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