Monday, October 08, 2007
The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill. Review
Quite why the Literary Review permitted critic Amanda Craig to reveal the twist in Susan Hill’s new novella The Man in the Picture: A Ghost Story must remain a mystery. Spite? Clumsiness? Too much weed? Whatever, we must console ourselves that the publication hardly figures on anyone’s radar except as a poor-paying finishing school for bright trustafarians all called Pandora – quite why it retains its amateurish, throwaway tone is another question I can’t quite summon up the enthusiasm to address. I leave to others to ponder.
And so to the work-in-hand. Hill launches light-handed raids on a wide variety of literary genres and ideas – from Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Dickens-style Gothicness to Victorian/Edwardian Yuletide spookmeister MR James and touches of Poe and Faust (and many more) – to confect an atmospheric ghost story all her own. If there is subtle mischief in some of the references – in a post-Scream world, horror must be knowing – then it remains an unassuming guest as Hill artfully builds up an affective sense of foreboding. No wonder BBC Radio 4 recently selected it as its Book of the Week: it’s the perfect read for horror fetishists who like to sip port as they shiver, alone.
So slight is the tale – by which I mean, so dependent is it on a series of simple but unexpected mechanics for build-up – that the most basic précis will have to do. Before a crackling fire in the grate – crucially it’s a cold and frosty night - ancient Cambridge don Theo tells his former student Oliver the strange history of an 18th Century painting hanging on the wall. It depicts masked revellers at the Venice carnival. One debauched figure in particular seems to possess a sulphuric, independent life: this is a painting that only appears to imitate life. In reality it has the power to take life, entrapping the souls of those who enrage whatever dark force controls it and imprinting their image upon the canvas forever. Revenge (a ghost story necessity) is the dark catalyst – whose revenge, or why the revenge, is best discovered in the narrative, not here.
The widowed countess, who appears a little later in the story, conjures up a passing Miss Havisham – and yet was that the shadow of the vengeful Mrs Danvers flitting by, too? I even found my mind wandering over the masterpiece horror movie Don’t Look Now (in which Venetian necromantic forces prove lethal) as Hill drives her unfortunate characters to smelly La Serenissima – the beguiling, the misleading “the most serene”, in this fiction.
Told in recollection (except for one part) by different, inter-related people, The Man in the Picture is both a classically constructed ghost story and a homage to the classic ghost story genre. What could have been mere comic pastiche, even a straight and obvious send-up, works as invented horror in its own right, in the hands of a great story-teller - remember Hill's The Woman in Black? A perfect Christmas read, in other words.
To buy a copy, go to Amazon