Maddy Flowers Sheehy calls this novel a fun young adult read but not scary enough for gore-loving horror fans.
THE CHILDREN ON THE HILL is the new novel by Jennifer McMahon, the New York Times bestselling author of The Drowning Kind (2021). The suspenseful thriller published by Simon & Schuster, Gallery Books, and Scout Press spans four decades, following monster-loving Violet, a 13-year-old girl in 1978 Vermont. The novel propels forward to 2019, where we meet Lizzy Shelley, host of the podcast Monsters Among Us returns to her childhood home in search of real monsters following the abduction of a young girl.
In 1978, we meet Violet living with her little brother Eric and grandmother Dr. Helen Hildreth, “Gran” to the children. Gran is a loving caretaker, home-schooling the two children. She teaches them how to be kind, compassionate, and curious. Gran is a well-known psychiatrist at a treatment center in Vermont, home to many mentally ill and troubled patients at her day job.
Gran brings home a young girl to stay with them named Iris. Iris doesn’t talk. She’s anxious and acts skittish. Eric and Violet welcome her into the family immediately, and she joins their Monster Club. In this secret activity, they track and write about monsters in the “Book of Monsters” guide they’ve created. The more we learn about Gran’s professional life and the mysterious goings-on at the treatment center, we discover that monsters may be more real than the kids ever imagined. After snooping around in forbidden areas, eavesdropping on phone calls, and making connections with a nurse at the treatment center, Violent suspects her Gran might not be who she’s grown up to believe.
Fast-forward to 2019, Violet has renamed herself Lizzy Shelley and hosts a paranormal podcast chronicling her travels across the country, investigating monster sightings. She’s on the trail of a long-hunted monster, who she suspects is her estranged sister Iris. The reader is in the dark about what traumatic incident occurred in 1978 and what fractured the family.
THE CHILDREN ON THE HILL is an engaging read, with chapters switching the narratives between Violet, Lizzy, news articles about the treatment center, and the kid’s “Book of Monsters.” This unique form of storytelling is a great way to slowly feed the reader bits and pieces of the mystery, with other background details and information falling into place as the story unfolds. The shifting narratives between past and present and news article excerpts help drive the mounting tension and feelings of suspense and dread, but the final payoff sadly doesn’t satisfy after the build-up. The scares are consistently eerie but didn’t create any fear for me that suited my definition of horror. The reveals are more subdued than shocking, especially when Lizzy is investigating her sister’s whereabouts and the truth of Gran’s activities at the treatment center.
While said to be inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), influences from recent science-fiction and horror films and television like Stranger Things (2016), American Horror Story: Asylum (2012), and even Malignant (2021) are evident. McMahon’s novel is an excellent choice for young adult readers looking to dive into the genre. However, for fans of grittier horror fiction, it might disappoint. While the novel’s pacing and shifting narrative kept me turning the page, it fails to contain anything that will terrify horror fans. The plot may not offer enough depth for those looking for more mature literature. In every chapter I read, I expected a shocking scene with gruesome details, but I came to find that this wasn’t that type of story. As the mystery reveals, there are tinges of more sinister content waiting for the reader’s pleasure, but the twists and shocks never fully satisfied.
The young adult aspect made me incredibly nostalgic throughout the 1978 storyline. The children’s Monster Club and their ever-evolving “Book of Monsters” were fun to read, and it reminded me of projects I created for myself as a pre-teen. Bike rides on summer nights, catching and caring for wildlife in the woods, and playing outside until I was tan, muddy, and exhausted were some of my favorite parts of being a kid, and THE CHILDREN ON THE HILL captured that spirit perfectly.
While the 1978 narrative is realistic, readers may cringe at the dialogue for the 2019 teenagers. The authenticity of McMahon’s characters is lost as she writes unrealistic quips for modern teens. That side of the plot was a miss for me.
Ultimately, THE CHILDREN ON THE HILL was not for me, despite having no trouble finishing it in just a few sittings. The young adult aspects were a bit simple, and plot points are spelled out, but it’s engaging enough to finish. I have nothing against popcorn fun or a light read, but I was expecting something scarier after reading the plot summary, with allusions to Frankenstein, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and primal fears. I’d recommend this novel to those who want a breezy read that includes creepy, atmospheric settings and a trauma-filled coming of age story but won’t be disappointed by the lack of thrilling scares and gore.