Small Hand

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.

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My first exposure to Susan Hill was through her Gothic Victorian horror, The Woman in Black. Well, not exactly. I first heard about it. Then I went and somehow ended up reading her Simon Serrailler mysteries as I’m a long-time mystery reader. There was something very different about her crime books compared to everything else I had read up until then. They were creepy, atmospheric and very disturbing. I remember how shocked and disoriented I was after reading the first book in the series, The Various Haunts of Men. The focus wasn’t so much on the mystery but on the social dissection of her characters and the cathedral town in which they live, Lafferton. I found the novels strangely riveting even though they left me feeling decidedly uncomfortable. And of course, the enigmatic Simon Serrailler, the ubiquitous sleuth but one without any vices except for his inability to commit.

The Shadows in the Street is the fifth volume of Hill’s mysteries featuring Simon Serrailler. I have to admit my main reason for reading these books is my crush on Serrailler but I think I’m one among many infatuated readers. Hill manages to give out little morsels of information about him without revealing anything. Apart from being a detective inspector, he is also an artist, a triplet and loves his sister’s kids.

In his fifth outing, Lafferton Cathedral is facing a fissure as a new Dean tries to make changes in the traditionally close knit community. Simon’s sister Cat is still grieving for her husband but is trying to rebuild her life through her continued work as a GP, her participation in cathedral affairs and in trying to maintain the fracturing peace amongst her friends.

When local prostitutes start turning up dead, the police begin to fear a serial killer is on the loose and Serrailler is recalled from his holiday sabbatical to tackle the problem before it gets worse. As Lafferton is a small town, people are becoming fearful and Serrailler must untangle the killer’s modus operandi before he kills again.

Hill’s mysteries remind me a lot of the wonderful crime dramas on telly such as Silent Witness which examines our society through crime. Although gruesome and disturbing, society’s crimes provide an insight into the troubling aspects of our lives which we often try and brush under the carpet. In Simon Serrailler and his family, Hill provides the control, the ordinary family with its share of happiness and sorrow with which we try and weigh the good against evil. Her descriptions of a modern religious community is also nicely balanced with the emotional support each member of the community receives and the complicated and often petty relationship problems that are ever present in such a diverse community.

More than other crime thrillers, Hill’s mysteries are a commentary on the urban encroachment of modern life and the widening gap between the increasingly menacing reality of the outside world and the intimate safety of family and friends. And she does this to chilling effect.

More please!

You must have all heard of The Woman in Black, right? I first came across it when I saw an advert for the play. A stage play that will scare the living daylights out of you, it said. I’ve been wanting to see it for years. I only recently realised that it was based on a book by Susan Hill. I’m a big fan of Hill’s mystery series featuring Simon Serrailler and had no idea she wrote spooky stuff too. I missed the trend last year when a lot of bloggers were reading her books for Halloween so I’m finally catching up. And I saved it especially for R.I.P. V.

I love reading supernatural/gothic/vampire/werewolf stories which don’t really frighten me and LOVE talking about real-life ghost stories. I get the occasional urge to go and watch a horror film but when I do, I’m frightened out of my wits and scream like a banshee. Lucky I don’t have nightmares, is all I can say. But I don’t read much to get scared. I read more for the gothic and mystery elements of the story. So I thought I ought to remedy this since it’s the spooky season and it’s getting suitably chilly. I figured that since this is my first scary story of the year, I’ll read it during the day. I’m a wuss, I can live with that.

For a slim book, The Woman in Black certainly packs a spine-chilling punch. Its Victorian gothic tone was perfect, her prose sparse yet furnishing enough detail that you are instantly transported into the life of Arthur Kipps, the solicitor from London, whose tale this is. I really, really loved this book. It’s an old-fashioned ghost story that is immensely readable, never boring and quite chilling. If you like to be scared, I suggest you read it at night, in bed, with only a dim candle as company.

Arthur Kipps is the young solicitor who is set the task of going through the papers of the recently deceased Mrs. Drablow. He travels up north from London and stays in a small village close to Eel Marsh House which can only be reached at low tide. From the beginning it becomes clear that something is not quite right. The villagers clam up when Kipps asks about Mrs. Drablow and her house. No one wants to help him or even go near the place. At Mrs. Drablow’s funeral, Kipps spies another mourner, a woman dressed in black. Her face is wasted as though she has some lingering disease and she is dressed in a quaint fashion. When he looks for her, she is gone. And when he asks after her, he is met by fear. Who is this lady? And why won’t people tell him what’s going on? You’ll have to read this to find out!

Hill certainly knows how to set the mood: brooding, dark, grey and windy. With each page, your heart rate increases and I was in a perpetual state of apprehension as I read the tale. I think what makes it even more chilling is that she begins the tale with a description of a festive and familial Christmas, yule logs burning, a gorgeous feast, presents under the tree. It’s all so warm and glowing and then she cuts to this ghostly tale. Instantly you feel the cold, the whispering wind, battering rain, everything that makes you want to run inside and shut the door. Hill feeds you bits and pieces of information at a time, making you want to turn the pages to find out more. I must admit that the revelations didn’t surprise me all that much as I’ve read enough supernatural tales to have a decent stab at a guess. However, the suspense is wonderful and I guarantee that you’ll feel a chill.

Now I suppose I’ll have to see the play to get the living daylights frightened out of me. And there’s also a film version in production starring Daniel Radcliffe aka Harry Potter to look forward to next year.

Have you read this? Did you find it scary?

The Risk of Darkness by Susan Hill The Vows of Silence by Susan Hill

I first picked up Susan Hill‘s crime series featuring DCI Simon Serrailler purely for it’s beautiful title, The Various Haunts of Men. I think at that time I was going through a phase of reading Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels, so Susan Hill’s book caught me by surprise because it was unlike any other modern crime novel I had ever read. There are some shocking twists and it was definitely more atmospheric and creepier than some of its fellow crime thrillers. I then followed it with The Pure in Heart, the second in the series, which left me disturbed and terrified, although Hill’s book is not a horror. So it took me a few years to go back and get her third in the series The Risk of Darkness. And when I finished it, I went straight out and got her fourth, The Vows of Silence, from the library. They were that good. And also perfect for Carl’s R.I.P. IV Challenge.

I don’t know what it is about her writing, but she does creepy really well. There is a pervading sense of unease underlying all of her novels. Even though they are set in Lafferton, an idealic cathedral town with its choir and friendly neighbours, Hill dots her fictional landscapes with modern problems, sink estates, hoodies and all the other little terrors that modern city dwellers deal with everyday. The cosy clashes with the uneasy, and it’s not a comfortable read.

I like her detective Simon Serrailler too. Of course, he’s handsome, blond and way too attractive to women. But he’s a flawed hero. He can’t commit, he’s a bit of a loner and has a prickly personality with a quick temper. Hill’s books in the Serrailler series are emotive rather than descriptive, psychological rather than physical, and she likes to shock her readers. She is unafraid of voicing dark thoughts which we normally bind tightly deep within ourselves and are too afraid to reveal just in case it lets out something unsightly that we can’t quite control. Hill has said she is interested in exploring the effect of violence and crime on people and society and she does this exceptionally well.

But then she is the acclaimed author of The Woman in Black which has spooked countless fans. I’m still undecided as to whether I should see the play or read the book first.

And I have been reading lots of lovely reviews including those by dovegreyreader scribbles and Stuck in a Book about her latest book Howards End is on the Landing which is Hill’s account of spending a year abstaining from buying books and reading only the ones from her TBR shelf. Sounds like something I need to do.