The Children on the Hill

Monster. The word brings to mind ugly, misshapen creatures wreaking havoc wherever they go. Perhaps the most famous monster is Frankenstein’s monster from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It’s been over 200 years since the teenaged Shelley created one of the most enduring tales of all time. And over the last two centuries, many have pondered who is the true monster in Shelley’s story? Is it Victor Frankenstein’s creation, the person he created from the parts of others, spurned by everyone, including his own creator, forced to live an existence alone and in constant fear? Or is the true monster Victor himself, the scientist who used his scientific genius with little to no regard of what the ramifications of his actions would be, especially those of his subject, and once succeeding in creating a new life, cast that person aside in horror and disgust?

In The Children on the Hill, Jennifer McMahon explores again the question of how we define who is a monster, with thrilling and chilling results.

The year is 1978. Vi and Eric, orphaned when their parents were killed in a car accident, live with their grandmother, Dr. Helen Hildreth. Dr. Hildreth is an acclaimed psychiatrist, known for her groundbreaking work with the mentally ill at her Hillside Inn in Vermont. But, to Vi and Eric, Dr. Hildreth is just Gran, their loving grandmother and the center of their world.

One day, Gran brings a young girl, who seems to be about Vi’s age, to their home. Gran introduces the girl as Iris and explains that Iris will be staying with them for a while. Iris has no memories of her life prior to being brought to Hillside Inn. Vi and Eric welcome Iris into their home and their lives. They also welcome her into their Monster Club. They are the only two members, now three, and they meet regularly at an abandoned shack they have made into a clubhouse. They are creating The Book of Monsters, with text by Vi and illustrations by Eric, about the creatures they see at the drive-in that shows old monster movies each weekend, and who they are convinced live around them, just waiting to be found. What none of them has ever considered is this: what will they do when they actually find a monster?

The year is 2019. Lizzie Shelley is one of the stars of the television show Monsters Among Us and was featured in the documentary film Shadow People. She regularly speaks at colleges and universities on monsters, past and present, and the roles they play in contemporary society. As she did when she was a child, Lizzie is always on the lookout for monsters. She remembers hunting them with her brother and sister. She remembers writing The Book of Monsters with them in the Vermont woods. After what happened there, she had to change her name and try to move on with her life, but her interest in monsters never wavered because she knows two things: 1) monsters are real, and 2) one of them is her sister.

In The Children on the Hill, Jennifer McMahon resurrects some of the “bones” of Mary Shelley’s most famous work and breathes new life into some of the enduring questions about what makes someone a monster. McMahon not only pays homage to Shelley in the book, but also the most famous, and enduring, portrayals of Frankenstein’s creature: Boris Karloff and the Universal Horror movies of the 1930s-50s. McMahon illustrates how those classic portrayals of the monsters have been the genesis of inspiration for generations of kids, including Vi, Eric, and Iris, and how, for some, obsessions with classic horror may shift and change but never really go away.

She also illustrates how, even in the digital age, interest in monsters has not waned. In the age of the internet, and nearly everyone armed with cameras on cellular phones and digital audio recorders, there is now more “evidence” than ever before of monsters. There are strange, local creatures haunting the woods, streams, lakes, and mountains everywhere. More people who have seen them (or know someone who has) than ever before and they are willing to share their findings and beliefs. They tell stories around camp fires or use the local legends to build tourist trade in their community.

McMahon creates a marvelous sense of nostalgia for the 1970s, with a splendid sense of life for pre-teens prior to the internet, cellphones, and social media. She describes perfectly a summer of secret clubhouse meetings and weekly bike rides into town to the candy store and the drive-in for the monster movie double feature. Through all of this is a growing sense of terror and dread. Who is Iris? Where did she come from? Does Gran know the answers to those questions and, if so, why isn’t she sharing the information she has with the children who are so reliant upon her.

The Children on the Hill is a marvelous celebration and exploration of the monstrous!  Read an interview with Jennifer McMahon.