From the New York Times bestselling author of The Drowning Kind comes a genre-defying 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 dream up ways to defeat all manner of monsters. 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 must for psychological thriller fans” (Publishers Weekly, starred review), The Children on the Hill takes us on a breathless journey to face the primal fears that lurk within us all.
Release date: April 26, 2022
Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
Print pages: 349
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
The Children on the Hill
May 8, 1978
THE BUILDING WAS haunted, Vi thought as she ran across the huge expanse of green lawn to the Inn. How could it not be? If she squinted just right, it could be an old mansion or castle, something from a black-and-white movie where Dracula might live. But the Inn was made from dull yellow bricks, not craggy stone. There were no turrets or battlements, no drawbridge. No bats flying out of a belfry. Only the large rectangular building with the old slate roof, the heavy glass windows with black shutters that no one ever actually closed.
Vi stepped into the shadow the building made, could feel it wrap its arms around her, welcome her, as she hopped up the granite steps. Above the front doors was a carved wooden sign made by a long-ago patient: HOPE. Vi whispered the secret password to the monster castle, which was EPOH—the word spelled backward.
Vi held tight to the plate in her hands, not a flimsy paper plate but one from their cupboards with the bright sunflower pattern that matched the kitchen curtains and tablecloth. She’d fixed Gran lunch—a liverwurst sandwich on rye bread. Vi thought liverwurst was gross, but it was Gran’s favorite. Vi had put on extra mustard because she told herself it wasn’t just mustard, it was a special monster-repelling potion, something to keep Gran safe, to keep the werewolves and vampires at bay. She’d centered the sandwich on the plate, put a pickle and some chips on the side, and covered it all up with plastic wrap to stay fresh. She knew Gran would be pleased, would coo about what a thoughtful girl Vi was.
Holding the sandwich in one hand, Vi pushed open the door with the other and entered the reception area, which they called the Common Room, with a tiled floor, throw rugs, a fireplace, and two comfortable couches. The first floor was the heart of the Inn. From the Common Room, hallways jutted to the right and left and the staircase was straight ahead. Down the hallway to the right were staff offices and the Oak Room at the end of the hall, where they held meetings. The left wing held the Day Room, where activities took place and the television was always on; the Quiet Room, full of books and art supplies; and, at the end of the hall, the Dining Room and kitchen. The patients took turns working shifts in the kitchen: mashing potatoes, scrubbing pots and pans, and serving their fellow residents at mealtime.
The second floor was what Gran and the staff referred to as “the suites”—the patient rooms. Divided into two units, 2 East and 2 West, were a total of twenty single rooms, ten on each unit, along with a station in the middle for the nurses and staff.
The door to the basement was just to the left of the main staircase leading to the second floor. Vi had never been in the basement. It was where the boiler and mechanical rooms were. Gran said it was used for storage and not fit for much else.
On the wall to her left hung the latest portrait of all the staff standing in front of the old yellow building, Gran right in the middle, a tiny woman in a blue pantsuit who was the center of it all: the sun in the galaxy that was the Hillside Inn.
The window between the Common Room and the main office slid open.
“Good afternoon, Miss Evelyn,” Vi said, chipper and cheerful, her voice a bouncing ball. Children were not allowed in the Inn. Vi and her brother, Eric, were the only occasional exceptions, and only if they could get past Miss Ev.
Evelyn Booker was about six feet tall with the build of a linebacker. She wore a curly auburn wig that was often slightly askew. Vi and Eric called her Miss Evil.
Vi looked at her now, wondered what kind of monster she might be and if the mustard potion would work on her too.
Miss Ev frowned at Vi through the open window, her thickly penciled eyebrows nearly meeting in the middle of her forehead.
Shapeshifter, thought Vi. Definitely shapeshifter.
“Dr. Hildreth is dealing with an emergency,” she said, as a cloud of cigarette smoke escaped out her window.
“I know,” Vi said. It was Saturday, one of Gran’s days off, but Dr. Hutchins had called, and Gran had spent several minutes on the phone sounding like she was trying to calm him down. At last she’d said she’d be right over and would handle things herself.
“But she ran out so fast she didn’t get a chance to eat breakfast or make herself a lunch. So I thought I’d bring her a sandwich.” Vi smiled at Miss Ev. Gran was often so busy she forgot to eat, and Vi worried about her—always putting the Inn first and thinking she could survive all day on stale coffee and cigarettes.
“Leave it here and I’ll see that she gets it.” Miss Ev eyed the plate with the sandwich suspiciously. Vi tried to shake off the disappointment of not being able to hand Gran the plate herself. She smiled and passed it through the window.
Tom with the wild long hair came sauntering into the Common Room and called out to her, “Violets are blue, how are you?” He was one of the patients on what Gran called the revolving-door policy; he’d been in and out of the Inn for as long as Vi could remember.
“I’m good, Tom,” Vi said cheerfully. “How are you doing today?”
“Oh, I’m itchy,” he said, starting to rub his arms, to scratch. “So, so itchy.” He peeled off his shirt, panting a little as he scratched his skin, which was covered with a thick pelt of black fur.
Werewolf, thought Vi. No question.
Tom threw his shirt to the floor, started unbuckling his pants.
“Whoa, there,” said Sal, one of the orderlies, whose neck was as thick as Vi’s waist. “Let’s keep our clothes on. We don’t want to get Miss Ev all excited.”
Miss Ev frowned and slammed the little glass window closed.
Vi smiled, said her goodbyes, and headed out of the Inn as Tom continued to yelp about how very itchy he was. She heard Sal telling him that he couldn’t have a cookie from the kitchen if he didn’t keep his clothes on.
Werewolf or not, Vi liked Tom. Gran had brought him home a few times and he and Vi had played checkers.
“Gran’s strays,” Vi and Eric called them—the patients Gran brought home. People not quite ready to be released back into the real world. Some deemed lost causes by the other staff at the Inn.
Gran had once brought home a man with scars all around his head who had no short-term memory—you had to keep introducing yourself to him over and over and reminding him that he’d already had breakfast. “Who are you?” he asked with alarm each time he saw Vi. “Still just Violet,” she’d said.
Mary D., a woman with curly orange hair, told the children she’d been reincarnated almost a hundred times and had vivid memories of every life and death. (I was Joan of Arc—can you imagine the pain of being burned at the stake, children?)
And then there was the silent, disheveled woman with sunken eyes who burst into sobs every time the children spoke to her. Eric and Vi called her simply the Weeping Woman.
Sometimes the visitors came back to the house just for a meal or to spend a night or two. Sometimes they stayed for weeks, sleeping in the guest room, rattling around like ghosts in hospital pajamas, spending hours talking with Gran in the basement, where she tested their memories, their cognitive abilities, and tried to cure them. She poured them tea, played cards with them, sat them down in the wing chairs in the living room and had Vi and Eric bring them plates of cookies and speak to them politely.
How do you do? Very pleased to meet you.
“A hospital, even a fine place like the Inn, it’s not exactly a nurturing environment. Sometimes, to get better, people need to feel like they’re at home,” Gran explained. “They need to be treated like family to get well.” Gran was like that; there was nothing she wouldn’t do to help her patients get well, to help them feel taken care of.
Vi and her brother were fascinated by the strays. Eric took photographs of each one with his Polaroid camera. He did it secretly, when Gran wasn’t around. They kept the photos in a shoebox hidden way at the back of Eric’s closet. Paper-clipped to each picture were index cards that Vi had written notes on—a name or nickname, any details they’d picked up. Vi and Eric called the shoebox “the files.” The cards said things like:
Mary D. has orange hair, which suits her because her favorite thing is toast with marmalade. She says she ate marmalade all the time back when she was Anne Boleyn, married to King Henry. Before her head was chopped off.
The shoebox also had a little notebook full of details they’d gleaned about Gran’s other patients, the ones they never saw but only heard about; things Vi and Eric had overheard Gran discussing on the phone with Dr. Hutchins, the other psychiatrist at the Inn, when he came over to sample Gran’s latest batch of gin. When Gran and Dr. Hutchins talked about the patients, they always used initials. Vi liked to flip through the notebook from time to time, to try to figure out if any of Gran’s strays were people she’d heard them talking about.
JUST LAST WEEK, she had eavesdropped on Gran and Dr. Hutchins while they sat sipping gin and tonics on the little stone patio in their backyard. Vi was crouched down, spying on them around the corner of the house.
“Batch 179,” Gran said. “I think the juniper’s a bit overpowering, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I think it’s delicious,” Dr. Hutchins said, which was what he said each time he tried a new batch of Gran’s homemade gin. Vi guessed that the poor man probably didn’t even like gin. More than once, she’d caught him surreptitiously dumping the contents of his glass in the flower beds when Gran wasn’t looking.
Dr. Hutchins seemed more nervous than the patients. He had a long thin neck, a small head, and thinning hair that sprang up in funny tufts. Vi thought he looked a little like an ostrich.
They’d talked about the weather, and then about flowers, and then they started discussing the patients. Vi got out her notebook.
“D.M. has had a rough week,” Dr. Hutchins said. “She lashed out at Sonny today during group. Took three men to restrain her.”
Sonny was one of the social workers. He did art therapy and helped in the clay studio. He was a nice man with a huge mustache and bushy sideburns. He sometimes let Vi and Eric make stuff in the ceramics studio: little pots, mugs, and ashtrays.
Gran rattled the ice in her glass. She poured another gin and tonic from the pitcher on the table between them.
“And there was the episode between her and H.G. on Wednesday,” he continued.
“She was provoked,” Gran responded, lighting a cigarette with her gold Zippo lighter with the butterfly etching on it. The other side had her initials engraved in flowing script: HEH. Vi heard the scratch of the flint, smelled the lighter fluid. Gran said smoking was a bad habit, one Vi should never start, but Vi loved the smell of cigarette smoke and lighter fluid, and most of all she loved Gran’s old butterfly lighter that needed to be filled with fluid and to have the flint changed periodically.
“She’s dangerous,” Dr. Hutchins said. “I know you feel she’s making progress, but the staff are starting to question whether the Inn is the best place for her.”
“The Inn is the only place for her,” Gran snapped. She took a drag of her cigarette, watched the smoke rise as she exhaled. “We’ll have to increase her Thorazine.”
“But if she continues to be a danger to others—”
“Isn’t that what we do, Thad? Help those no one else can?”
Yes, Vi thought. Yes! Gran was a miracle worker. A genius. She was famous for helping patients others couldn’t help.
Dr. Hutchins lit his own cigarette. They were quiet a moment.
“And what about Patient S?” Dr. Hutchins asked. “Things still progressing in a positive way?”
Vi finished up her notes on D.M. and started a new page for Patient S.
“Oh yes,” Gran said. “She’s doing very well indeed.”
“And the medications?” Dr. Hutchins asked.
“I’ve been drawing back on them a bit.”
“I don’t believe so. None that she’ll admit to or is aware of.”
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Dr. Hutchins said. “The progress she’s made? You should be very proud of yourself. You’ve given her exactly what she needs. You’ve saved her.”
Gran laughed. “Saved? Perhaps. But I’m starting to think she may never lead a normal life. Not after all she’s been through. She’ll have to be watched. And if the authorities or the papers ever…”
“Do you think she remembers?” he asked. “What she did? Where she came from?”
The hairs on Vi’s arms stood up the way they did during a bad storm.
“No,” Gran said. “And honestly, I believe that’s for the best, don’t you?”
They both sipped their drinks, ice cubes rattling. Their cigarette smoke drifted up into the clouds.
Vi listened hard, wrote: WHAT DID PATIENT S DO? Murder someone???
She knew the Inn had violent patients, people who had done terrible things not because they were terrible people, but because they were sick. That’s what Gran said.
But was an actual murderer there? Someone Gran was protecting, keeping safe?
She scribbled WHO IS PATIENT S??? in big letters in her notebook.
VI THOUGHT ABOUT Patient S now as she walked back across the lawn and drive to their big white house, directly across the road from the Inn. “Who is Patient S?” she asked out loud, then listened for an answer. Sometimes, if she asked the right question at the right time, God would answer.
When God spoke to Vi, it was like a dream. A whispered voice, half-remembered.
When God spoke, he sometimes sounded just like Neil Diamond on Gran’s records:
I am, I said.
And Vi pictured him up there, watching her, dressed in his tight beaded denim suit like the one Neil Diamond wore on the live double album Gran loved to play—Hot August Night. God’s hair was wild as a lion’s. His chest hair poked out through the V of his jacket.
There were other gods too. Other voices.
Gods of small things.
Of mice and toasters.
God of tadpoles. Of coffee perkers that whispered a special hello to her each morning in a bright bubbling voice: Good morning, Starshine. Pour a little cup of me. Take a sip. Gran says you’re old enough now. Take a sip of me, and I’ll tell you more.
But today, so far at least, the gods were silent. Vi heard birds and the slow drone of bees gathering nectar from early blossoms.
It was a bright, sunny spring day, and Vi settled in on the porch swing, reading one of Gran’s books—Frankenstein. Each time she went into Gran’s gigantic library or the little brick Fayeville Public Library in town, Vi let the God of Books help her choose what she’d read next. He spoke in a thin, papery voice, as she ran her fingers along the spines of the books until he said, This one. And she had to read the whole thing, even if it didn’t truly interest her. Because she’d learned that, even in the dullest book, a secret message was inside, written just for her. The trick was learning how to find it. But Frankenstein felt like the whole thing had been written just for her. It made her feel all electric and charged up.
She read some passages again and again, even underlined them in pencil so she could copy them out later when she sat down to write her report for Gran, as she did for each book she read: No one can conceive the variety of feelings which bore me onwards, like a hurricane, in the first enthusiasm of success. Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world.
She was swinging and reading, and listening to the porch swing creak, creak, creak until the creaking became a song—torrent of light, torrent of light, torrent of light—and she closed her eyes to listen harder.
That’s when she heard her name being called. From far away at first, then closer. Louder, more frantic: Vi, Vi, VI!
She opened her eyes and saw her brother. He was tearing up the driveway, bare-chested. His red T-shirt was wadded up in his hands, wrapping something he cradled carefully as he sprinted toward her. He was crying, his face streaked with mud and tears. Whenever Vi saw him shirtless, she thought her little brother looked like one of those terrible pictures you saw in National Geographic of a starving kid: his head too big for his pale, stick-thin body, his ribs pressed up against his skin so you could count each one like the bars of a xylophone.
Eric’s tube socks were pulled up nearly to his knobby knees, yellow stripes at the top. His blue Keds were worn through at the toes, his shorts ragged cutoffs of last year’s Toughskins jeans. His crazy tangle of curly brown hair bobbed like a strange nest on top of his head. After the long Vermont winter, he was pale as the inside of a potato.
“What happened?” Vi asked, standing up, setting her book down on the swing.
“It’s a baby rabbit,” he gasped, holding the filthy bundle to his chest, unwrapping it enough for Vi to see the brown fur of the tiny creature. “It’s hurt,” Eric said, voice cracking. “I think… I think it might be dead.”
Eric was always saving animals: stray cats, a woodchuck rescued from the jaws of a dog, countless mice and rats from Gran’s experiments in the basement—rodents too old to run the mazes, to be conditioned by treats and little electric jolts. Eric felt bad for the animals in the basement and had even freed one—Big White Rat, who Gran thought had managed to escape on his own and now lived in the walls of their house and made appearances from time to time, ...
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...