We can't know if the late Shirley Jackson would like the sequel to "The Haunting of Hill House" that her estate authorized, but I bet she'd like its creepy vibe.
Elizabeth Hand's "A Haunting on the Hill" takes place in the same crumbling mansion as Jackson's 1959 classic and the 2018 Netflix series inspired by it. Aside from a couple of small references to previous incidents, that's the only connection in Hand's book, which is set in the present and features a quartet of theater artists who — unlike the supernatural explorers in Jackson's novel — don't plan to debunk the house's ghostly aura. They intend to exploit it.
Holly has written a play that deals with the supernatural. Despite vague warnings, her plan is to workshop it at Hill House, along with girlfriend Nisa, who's adapting old-time "murder ballads" to be used in the play; actor/sound designer Stevie; and demanding actor Amanda, who thinks the meaty role Holly's play offers her will be her ticket back into the public eye.
(Spoiler alert: It won't, but the distinct possibility that she will perish in some terrible way at Hill House might.)
Hand is funny, although her sense of humor is more overt than "The Lottery" author's drier-than-matzoh wit. Hand has Holly, suspicious of her collaborators, observe, "That was what actors did with a work in progress — angle for more lines."
"A Haunting" also is adept at connecting the creepy noises and disappearing objects of Hill House to the psychology of the four characters, each of whom is hiding something. Would Holly be so freaked out by the hallways that seem to expand in front of her eyes, for instance, if she weren't distracted by worry that her girlfriend is a better artist than she is?
Hand unnerves us by inference and restraint (again, like Jackson). The only bloodshed in the book is a stain that could really be spilled wine but Hand piles on the Gothic touches — a shape-shifting black hare (a drawing of that bad bunny taunts us at the beginning of each of the novel's 82 chapters), a tiny door that fascinates and repels two characters, mysterious blasts of cool air, a turret that seems to be straining to release itself from the house and a freak storm that traps everyone in Hill House just as they've figured out they're not imagining all of the above.
Of course there's something malevolent happening at Hill House. We know it on Page 1 and, although it takes these four dolts about 200 pages to get with the program, it's a measure of Hand's precision and skill that we have so much fun watching them put together the pieces that doom them.
A Haunting on the Hill
By: Elizabeth Hand.
Publisher: Mulholland Books, 326 pages, $27.99.