Thursday, October 30, 2014

Painting Ghosts: The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill

One of the creepiest ghost stories I've ever read chilled my blood one October night some time ago.  Susan Hill's slim-as-a-stilletto novel The Man in the Picture (2008) is a quick, unsettling read, and would make a nice companion to her more recent The Mist in the Mirror (which is still on my To-Be-Read list--must do something about that!).  Here's my short review, published elseweb six years ago, which should get you in the Halloween spirit....if you're not already there.

*     *     *

In 1924, M. R. James wrote: “Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, the atmosphere and the nicely-managed crescendo.”

In her novel, The Man in the Picture, Susan Hill (The Woman in Black) mixes those ingredients with other elements of classic Gothic fiction to deliver a story that will have readers nervously avoiding art galleries.

This ghost story, easily read in one nerve-jangling sitting, begins as a man named Oliver visits his old Cambridge professor and learns the deadly secret behind an oil painting of a Venetian carnival scene.  As literary tradition dictates, the tale is spun beside a fire “one bitterly cold January night” as the wind “howled round and occasionally a burst of hail rattled against the glass.”

Like Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Sheridan Le Fanu and the two Jameses (M. R. and Henry), Hill knows how to carefully dole out the tension.   The horror here creeps up slowly and reaches a “nicely-managed crescendo” in its final pages.  Hill never condescends to parody—her frights are in earnest.  The smallest detail like “the faintest smell of fresh oil paint” will prickle the hairs of the reader’s scalp.

Poe would be proud.

No comments:

Post a Comment