The Children on the Hill
Published by: Gallery/Scout Press
Release Date: April 26, 2022
From the New York Times bestselling author of The Drowning Kind comes a genre-defying new novel, inspired by Mary Shelley’s masterpiece Frankenstein, that brilliantly explores the eerie mysteries of childhood and the evils perpetrated by the monsters among us.
1978: At her renowned treatment center in picturesque Vermont, the brilliant psychiatrist, Dr. Helen Hildreth, is acclaimed for her compassionate work with the mentally ill. But when she’s home with her cherished grandchildren, Vi and Eric, she’s just Gran—teaching them how to take care of their pets, preparing them home-cooked meals, providing them with care and attention and love.
Then one day Gran brings home a child to stay with the family. Iris—silent, hollow-eyed, skittish, and feral—does not behave like a normal girl.
Still, Violet is thrilled to have a new playmate. She and Eric invite Iris to join their Monster Club, where they catalogue all kinds of monsters and dream up ways to defeat them. Before long, Iris begins to come out of her shell. She and Vi and Eric do everything together: ride their bicycles, go to the drive-in, meet at their clubhouse in secret to hunt monsters. Because, as Vi explains, monsters are everywhere.
2019: Lizzy Shelley, the host of the popular podcast Monsters Among Us, is traveling to Vermont, where a young girl has been abducted, and a monster sighting has the town in an uproar. She’s determined to hunt it down, because Lizzy knows better than anyone that monsters are real—and one of them is her very own sister.
A haunting, vividly suspenseful page-turner from the “literary descendant of Shirley Jackson” (Chris Bohjalian, author of The Flight Attendant), The Children on the Hill takes us on a breathless journey to face the primal fears that lurk within us all.
“[A] stellar take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein . . . McMahon keeps the reader wondering how much is real and how much is imagined. This is a must for psychological thriller fans.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“McMahon succeeds admirably in building real chills and a surprising twist, offering a satisfying addition to the Frankenstein-inspired oeuvre. Mary Shelley would give it two thumbs up.”
—Kirkus (starred review)
“This modern take on Frankenstein has a delicious twist at the end. This novel is an all-nighter!”
—LibraryReads, "April 2022 Hall of Fame"
“In a tightrope’s walk of suspense, The Children on the Hill asks the reader to consider the precarious nature of memory and the definition of the word ‘monster.’”
—WBUR ARTery, "Spring Books Guide"
“I always show up for Jennifer McMahon. Her storytelling is tried and true. I don't want to miss her unique brand of suspense.”
—LitReactor, "2022 Horror Your Do Not Want to Miss"
August 15, 2019
Her smell sends me tumbling back through time to before.
Before I knew the truth.
It’s intoxicating, this girl’s scent. She smells sweet with just a touch of something tangy and sharp, like a penny held on your tongue.
I can smell the grape slushy she had this afternoon, the cigarettes she’s been sneaking, the faint trace of last night’s vodka (pilfered from her daddy’s secret bottle kept down in the boathouse—I’ve watched them both sneak out to take sips from it).
She smells dangerous and alive.
And I love her walk—the way each step is a bounce like she’s got springs at the bottoms of her feet. Like if she bounces high enough, she’ll go all the way up to the moon.
Don’t look at the moon, full and swollen, big and bright.
Wrong monster. I am no werewolf.
Though I tried to be once.
Not long after my sister and I saw The Wolf Man together, we found a book on werewolves with a spell in it for turning into one.
“I think we should do it,” my sister said.
“No way,” I told her.
“Don’t you want to know what it feels like to change?” she asked.
We sneaked out into the woods at midnight, did a spell under the full moon, cut our thumbs, drank a potion, burned a candle, and she was right—it was an exquisite thrill, imagining that we were turning into something so much more than ourselves. We ran naked and howling through the trees, pretending ferns were wolfsbane and eating them up.
We thought we might become the real thing, not like Lon Chaney Jr., with the wigs and rubber snout and yak hair glued to his face (my sister and I read that in a book too—“poor yaks,” we said, giggling, guffawing about how bad that hair must have smelled).
When nothing happened that night, we were so disappointed. When we didn’t sprout
fur and fangs or lose our minds at the sight of the moon. When we went back home and swore to never speak of what we’d done as we pulled on our pajamas and crawled into our beds, still human girls.
“Can you guess what I am?” I ask the girl now. I don’t mean to. The words just come shooting out like sparks popping up from a fire.
“Uh,” she says, looking at me all strange. “I don’t know. A ghost? Someone who was once a human bean?”
And that’s just how she says it. Bean. Like we’re all just baked beans in a pot, or maybe bright multicolored jelly beans, each a different flavor.
I’d be licorice. The black ones that get left at the bottom of the bag. The ones no one can stand the taste of.
I shift from one foot to the other, bits of my disguise clanking, rattling, the hair from the tangled wig I wear falling into my eyes.
I love this girl so much right now. All that she is. All that I will never be.
All that I can never have.
And mostly, what I love is knowing what’s coming next: knowing that I will change her as I’ve changed so many others.
I am going to save this girl.
“When do I get my wish?” she asks now.
“Soon,” I say, smiling.
I am a giver of wishes.
A miracle worker.
I can give this girl what she most desires, but she isn’t even aware of her own desires.
I can’t wait to show her.
“So, do you want to play a game or something?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say, practically shouting. Yes, oh yes, oh yes! This is my favorite question, my favorite thing! I know games. I play them well.
“Truth or dare?” she asks.
“If you wish. But I have to warn you, I’ll know if you’re lying.”
She shrugs, tugs at her triple-pierced right earlobe, squints at me through all her layers of black goth makeup; a good girl trying so hard to look bad. “Nah. Let’s play tag,” she says, and this surprises me. She seems too old for such games. “My house is safety. You’re it.” Already
running, she slaps my arm so hard it stings.
I laugh. I can’t help it. It’s nerves. It’s the thrill. There’s no way this girl, with her stick-thin legs and cigarette smoke–choked lungs, can outrun me.
I am strong. I am fast. I have trained my whole life for these moments.
I’m running, running, running, chasing this beautiful girl in the black hoodie, her blond hair with bright-purple tips flying out behind her like a flag from a country no one’s ever heard of. A girl so full of possibility, and she doesn’t even know it. She’s running, she’s squealing, thinking she’s going to make it back to safety, back to the bright lights of her little cabin that are just now coming into view through the trees (only bright because of the low hum of the generator out back, no power lines way out here). Thinking she’s actually going to make it home, back to her parents (whom she hates) and her warm bed with the flannel sheets, back to her old dog, Dusty, who growls whenever he catches my scent—he knows what I am.
I have weeds woven into my hair. I am covered in a dress of bones, sticks, cattail stalks, old fishing line and bobbers. I am my own wind chime, rattling as I run. I smell like the lake, like rot and ruin and damp forgotten things.
I can easily overtake this girl. But I let her stay ahead. I let her hold on to the fantasy of returning to her old life. I watch her silhouette bounding through the trees, flying, floating.
And just like that, I’m a kid again, chasing my sister, pretending to be some movie monster (I’m the Wolf Man, I’m Dracula, I’m the Phantom of the motherfucking Opera) but I was never fast enough to catch her.
But I’m going to catch this girl now.
And I’m a real monster now. Not just pretend.
I’m going to catch this girl now because I never could catch my sister.
Here it is, forty years later, and still it’s always her I’m chasing.