Susan Hill. The Small Hand: A Ghost Story. Profile Books 2010.
Reviewed by Glennis Byron.
As Christmas is now looming, I’m looking for some recently published ghost stories that might serve as appropriate presents, so I’ll be putting up a few ghost story reviews/posts over the next month or so.
As a huge fan of The Woman in Black, I was anticipating a real treat this evening when I sat down to read Susan Hill’s latest supernatural fiction, The Small Hand. The book is beautifully designed by Peter Dyer, but what is inside is somewhat disappointing.
Hill’s protagonist, Adam Snow, is returning from London one night when he loses his way in some country lanes and finds himself at the apparently abandoned and derelict White House. In the overgrown garden in the gathering dusk, Adam feels the cool small hand of a spectral child creep into his own. It’s an effective start, almost as quietly horrific as a similar incident in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Adam (shades of M.R. James) is an antiquarian book dealer, allowing for numerous literary references, visits to the Bodleian, and a, to my mind, completely irrelevant trip to a French monastery to obtain a First Folio for a wealthy client, Sir Edgar Merriman. The spectral child, who we soon discover had been drowned, pursues Adam with increasingly hostile intentions as it tries to drag him into a watery grave. But the story never again matches that first genuinely shivery moment.
Ghost stories obviously rely on conventions, and part of the pleasure of reading a ghost story is recognising these conventions and the ways in which the author is playing with them. But here they are too obvious, dished out straight and cold with little attempt to make them anew. I found the plot contrived and the ending predictable and the whole book unsatisfying since absolutely no attempt is made to provide any explanation for the murder that initially produces the haunting.
Interviewing Hill recently on BBC Radio 4′s Open Book, Mariella Frostrup commented that the story was unusual in its 21st century setting, and Hill agreed that there indeed weren’t many ghost stories with contemporary settings, maybe a couple of short stories. Hello??
Even with a modern setting, Hill suggested, you have to have atmosphere: it would be hard to set one in modern London. I suspect Hill needs to read a little more widely in order to see what has been done recently without resorting to the rather musty setting she cultivates here. The Woman in Black was a wonderful book, but I think Hill perhaps needs to move on.
The interview with Mariella Frostrup on BBC 4s’ Open Book, first broadcast on 26/09/2010, can be heard here: Mariella Frostrup Interviews Susan Hill. The interview starts at 1.37 mins.
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