Susan Hill’s novel The Woman in Black must be one of the most unsettling ghost stories ever written. It has a genuine darkness that eats away at your imagination, hijacking our sense of daily security and replacing composure with horror.
I started Susan Hill’s The Small Hand the other day and was immediately impressed by the cunning ordinariness of the opening. Like M R James, and even Bram Stoker, Susan Hill recognises the slowly evolving potential of dullness!
In other words, take a rather uninspiring narrator or central character and carefully insinuate them into a narrative where the familiar or ‘dull’ becomes eroded by the strange. Susan Hill has the gift I feel that such strangeness almost begins like blinking or hearing a distant dripping tap. The reader, like the narrator, feels just slightly aware at our edges, so to speak, that ‘something’ is not quite right. We become disorientated with the narrator and begin to lose our way…
‘It was a little before nine o’clock, the sun was setting into a bank of smoky violet cloud and I had lost my way. I reversed the car and drove back half a mile to the fingerpost. ‘ (p.9)
The speaker has lost his way. How ordinary, how innocent, how much they are like us. Yet, this is a tale told retrospectively. The end is already known and the fading light and the setting sun may be more weighted with significance than the mere recital of the details surrounding the event can here reveal. They know more than us, yet they are chosing not to tell us. This is a narrative that slowly uncoils its malignancy. Details are paraded as if they are mere transparent representations of ordinary things…
Details play havoc with complacency, they play games with understanding too.They do not always mean what we expect them to mean. Here the mention of the ‘fingerpost’ gives something more ancient and even prophetic to the very atmosphere of the tale, for a tale we know it will become. Where it points to and where it will lead us now that we, like the narrator, have lost our way, we cannot know – just yet!
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