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The Children on the Hill


The Children on the Hill

I have been a fan of Jennifer McMahon dating back to the 2014 publication of THE WINTER PEOPLE. Now, with THE CHILDREN ON THE HILL, she has put together a nearly flawless work of gothic supernatural terror. Two things really got my engine revving. First, McMahon dedicates the novel to “All the monsters of my childhood, real and imagined.” Then, the icing on the cake for a horror aficionado like myself, is this quote from Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN: “I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on. Even now my blood boils at the recollection of this injustice.”

"Jennifer McMahon keeps proving that she is a modern-day successor to the late great Shirley Jackson. Still, nothing she has written before has affected or moved me like THE CHILDREN ON THE HILL."

Just as a director and cinematographer can capture the tone of a movie with the first shot of moving imagery, a great novelist is able to do that with his or her properly placed words. McMahon moves around the English language in such a way as to send internal images across your brain that are chill-inducing. In THE CHILDREN ON THE HILL, the Hildreth children are growing up in 1978 under unusual conditions. Vi and Eric are being raised by their Gran at the insane asylum where she works during the day. They have just taken in a new “sister,” Iris, who is seemingly feral but is thrown into their duo to turn them into a trio, where they can bond and play together.

In 2019, we find a strange woman watching a young lady and taking a keen interest in her. McMahon has such a way with words in instantly describing this desire that she feels for her, referring to her as “[a] girl so full of possibility, and she doesn’t even know it…. Here it is, forty years later, and still it’s always her I’m chasing.” It will all make wonderful, twisted sense soon enough as this is a ride you want to sit back and enjoy.

The action jumps between the time of the “children on the hill” and the present-day narrative. Sprinkled throughout are excerpts from the book The Helping Hand of God: The True Story of the Hillside Inn by Julia Tetreault, which was published independently in 1980. We will learn that in the 1970s the Hillside Inn was one of New England’s finest psychiatric institutions. When Gran introduced Iris to Vi and Eric, and asked them to take her in and treat her like she was their own sister, life would never be the same for any of them.

In 2019, a copy of Tetreault’s book is picked up by Lizzy Shelley, who is visiting the Vermont area as part of her podcast, “Monsters Among Us.” She seems to be looking for more than just the local cryptid during her trip, and very quickly readers will figure out who she actually is. Her podcast grew out of a childhood project she had worked on with her brother and sister, which she referred to as The Book of Monsters. This unpublished work is shown throughout THE CHILDREN ON THE HILL, and we learn important tidbits, such as how to kill a vampire or a werewolf.

It turns out that Lizzy is seeking her long-lost “sister,” who refers to herself as “the Monster.” Young women have gone missing in this part of Vermont, and she realizes that her sister may be behind these disappearances. With the assistance of a young man who is a huge follower of her podcast, they are determined to find the most recent missing girl.

Jennifer McMahon keeps proving that she is a modern-day successor to the late great Shirley Jackson. Still, nothing she has written before has affected or moved me like THE CHILDREN ON THE HILL. It is, quite frankly, phenomenal and an instant gothic horror classic that will haunt your psyche, pull on your heartstrings, and create unforgettable images as all great horror fiction should.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on April 29, 2022

The Children on the Hill
by Jennifer McMahon