The Small Hand by Susan Hill
8 November, 2013
As I stood I felt a small hand creep into my right one, as if a child had come up beside me in the dimness and taken hold of it. It felt cool and its fingers curled themselves trustingly into my palm and rested there and the small thumb and forefinger tucked my own thumb between them. As a reflex, I bent it over and we stood for a time which was out of time, my own man’s hand and the very small hand held as closely together as the hand of a father and his child. But I am not a father and the small child was invisible.
Following my previous forays into spooky tales come Hallowe’en, this year I thought I’d have another crack at a Susan Hill ghost story. The Woman in Black, although atmospheric and very, very dark didn’t exactly scare the pants off me. And nor did We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson or The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore. But then I didn’t exactly read them alone in the witching hour. The Small Hand, subtitled A Ghost Story, has had some pretty spooked reviews and I thought it a fitting tale for the end of October. I was planning to read it at night but after a recent bout of horror films (The Shutter starring Joshua Jackson was excellent), I’m afraid I couldn’t quite make myself.
In this novella, Hill recalls a forgotten age, her language mimicking the great storytellers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and an England harking back to the pre-war era although it’s set in contemporary times. Adam Snow is an antiquarian bookseller on his way to see a client when he stumbles across a dilapidated house and overgrown garden. Once a tourist destination for garden lovers, The White House lies forgotten and disenchanted. He feels an urge to see the place and it is there that he first encounters a strange presence. As he increasingly suffers panic attacks and feels a small hand pulling him towards a watery grave, he confides in his brother Hugo, who had had a mental breakdown several years ago, and asks for his help. But Hugo wants to forget his past and is now happily married. Who is the little boy whose hand keeps finding his? And what is the secret behind the sorry house and garden?
Particularly chilling is Adam’s atmospheric journey into the mountains of France to an isolated Cistercian monastery reminiscent of Jonathan Harker’s foray into deep and dark Transylvania in Bram Stoker’s classic horror, Dracula. Adam is there to examine a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio for a client but is immediately consumed with fatigue and fear and is looked after by the gentle, if silent, monks of Saint Mathieu des Etoiles.
Although The Small Hand doesn’t offer many surprises, what lifts Susan Hill’s novella far above any ordinary tale of horror is her beautifully crafted prose. Every word has been weighed, every pause timed. Her descriptions evoke the slow and silent descent into horror as Adam succumbs to the lure of the creepy house and garden. He can’t help himself. And you can’t help yourself worrying what will happen to him. Hill is indeed a master at cranking up the tension. It’s a slow and deceptively calm book which will make you want to scream at the end. A little gem.
I read this as part of Carl’s R.I.P. VIII. Do go and see what others have been reading.