After reading Peter Ackroyd’s The English Ghost last week, I was still in the mood for ghost stories. Susan Hill is the inheritor of the great tradition of ghost stories of the Victorian & Edwardian period. One of her novels, The Woman in Black, is probably the one of the most successful ghost stories ever written. It has been made into a TV movie & has been adapted for the stage. It has one of the most frightening ghosts I’ve ever encountered. One of the scenes in the movie was so scary, I remember jumping with fright. The same scene in the book was just as creepy. Susan Hill’s latest ghost story, The Small Hand, differs from the others she’s written because it’s set in the present rather than the past.
Adam Snow is a rare book dealer. Driving back to London after a visit to one of his clients, Sir Edgar Merriman, Adam becomes lost & finds himself in the gardens of a dilapidated, abandoned house. As he walks through the gardens, he feels someone take his hand. It’s the hand of a child, trusting & confiding, but there’s no one there. Adam isn’t frightened, just curious. He finds his way back to the main road, goes home & gets on with his life. On his next visit to the Merrimans, he asks Lady Alice about the White House. She knows it as Denny’s House & shows him a magazine article about Denisa Parsons, the woman who restored the house & gardens. The gardens particularly were much admired & became a tourist attraction. Sadly, Denisa’s grandson drowned in a pool in the grounds &, after that, the gardens were abandoned, gradually reclaimed by the wilderness again.
Adam is visiting a librarian friend in Oxford when he has his next encounter with the small hand. This episode is not so benign. Far from confiding & trusting, this time the hand is insistent, pulling him towards a pond in the Botanic Gardens. It takes all his strength to resist the temptation to let go & be dragged into the water. Adam’s brother, Hugo, had suffered a mental breakdown some years before. His symptoms had included a feeling of overwhelming desire to throw himself in front of a train or off a building. Adam is afraid that he is also heading for a breakdown & tries to talk to Hugo about his feelings, but Hugo downplays his fears.
Adam travels to a remote monastery in France to look at a Shakespeare First Folio that he may be able to sell to Sir Edgar Merriman. On his way to the monastery up winding mountain roads, Adam drives into a storm & swerves to avoid a figure that forces him off the road. Again, the feeling of almost overwhelming dread & fear is followed by the hand dragging him towards the precipice. There’s another episode at the monastery itself &, after talking to the Abbot, Adam realises that he will have to confront the spirit & find out what it wants with him if he is ever to be free from its influence. Confronting the spirit means that he must return to the White House.
This is a wonderfully atmospheric story. Susan Hill’s ghost stories are always set in beautifully-realised landscapes. The abandoned house & garden are reminiscent of Manderley in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca or the ruined castles in any number of classic ghost stories by Elizabeth Gaskell or May Sinclair. The monastery of St Mathieu des Etoiles is a perfect setting for contemplation as well as the supernatural encounter Adam has with the ghostly hand. The book is firmly situated in the present. Adam flies all over the world in his work, telephones & emails his clients & contacts, but the story is timeless. First person narration is the only effective way to tell a ghost story, I think. I felt myself growing breathless along with Adam as the feeling of dread grows stronger with every appearance of the small hand. Modern ghost stories can too often become horror stories with vampires, zombies & werewolves stalking their victims. I much prefer the subtleties of a delicate ghost story like The Small Hand.