The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill

Ever have that need to reassert your independence?  To act so that you feel like you aren’t controlled by The Man in the Picture by Susan Hillcircumstances even if it isn’t always the smart thing to do?

Why all this philosophical questioning?  Well, it has to do with being in the local library and looking for books even though you TBR piles is gigantic and you are behind on your reviews.  Yes, I checked out a book and started reading it immediately because to do otherwise would be to acknowledge that I am the prisoner of my lists; that I can only read what has been chosen – even by myself.

But I picked out a short book just to be safe: The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill.  As is my custom, allow Publishers Weekly to supply the plot description:

Hill (The Woman in Black) crafts an old-school spooker in this atmospheric tale of a sinister painting imbued with the vengeful spirit of a former owner. The painting, owned by retired Cambridge don Theo Parmitter, catches the eye of a visiting former student who’s intrigued by its depiction of an 18th-century Venetian carnival scene and a figure in the foreground who looks anachronistically modern. The student’s questions extract from Theo the strange story of how he won it at auction and the even stranger tale of the bidder he beat . . .

(the above is truncated to avoid spoilers)

The Man in the Picture is really an old fashioned ghost story.  The terror is communicated by atmosphere and imagination rather than by graphic violence or danger.  Hill also uses set characters and style to build a traditional ghostly tale.

Whether you enjoy it or not has a lot to do with whether you have an appreciation for that style and the skill it takes to successfully create a story within that genre.  I am somewhat torn.  It is a short work and certainly a well written one.  And I can appreciate the skill Hill brings to a tricky job.  But in the end I didn’t find the work all that creepy or unnerving.  It never quite pulled me into the story.  Perhaps if I had been reading it all in one sitting on a dark and stormy night the mood would have struck me, but reading it in bed over the course of a couple of nights it did not.

I am not a good judge of these things, however, as I am not really a fan or horror or other related styles.  For some other opinions that might involve spoilers read below.

Sally Vickers reviewed it for The Independent:

As with many successful ghost stories – The Turn of the Screw comes to mind – the form of the book is a re-telling; indeed, a series of re-tellings. Hill knows that the sinister is enhanced by obliqueness. By giving us a chain of raconteurs, she skilfully conveys the ambience in which the uncanny survives via rumour and report.

The story begins in a thoroughly traditional way: Hill is too clever to veer towards pastiche, but there is an undercurrent of wit in all good ghost stories. A Cambridge college, replete with leather armchairs, cosy fires, decanters of fine drink, and a retiring don; a bachelor, of course. For possibly Freudian reasons, the histories of the uncanny are most often the province of the unmarried.

The rest of the cast of characters also follows convention: a pair of young and passionate lovers, a scorned woman consumed by jealousy, an aged countess, a weak son, and the disingenuous narrator, who, naturally, falls victim to the very story that he is being told. And then there is Venice, which shimmers with a predictably malevolent light.

[. . .]

Hill has turned a familiar idea on its head: life is not the subject of art but its object (Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is another influence). The painting re-creates itself by absorbing the likeness of its victim, who appears anew, in a vignette in the picture, where a horror-stricken man is led away against his will, we surmise to his own death. This is scariness at its most convivial.

Jane Gardam pens what is sure to be a blurb on the paperback:

Susan Hill knows exactly how to please. This small, smart, elegantly printed little notepad of a book is a delicious Victorian ghost story, nostalgically and expertly comforting.

The Madame Arcati blog offers this take:

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.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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