Many readers, especially those who love crime fiction, will know Susan Hill from her Simon Serrailler series of novels. I collect those too, but the first of her novels I read was actually at school. At the age of 12 we were told to read I’m The King of the Castle and then write the second chapter, developing the story as we thought it might go. I wrote a sinister piece suggesting that the main character might be on a path to becoming a serial killer. From there I was hooked on her ghost stories, they were sinister, dark and mysterious. They’re also very short, (novellas really) so they’re perfect for hospital and train journeys. They have a very interesting way of creeping up on the reader. Sometimes, I’ve been half way through a story, thinking it doesn’t feel spooky at all, only to be terrified two pages later. I’m sharing with you my thoughts on four of her books that had an effect on me and might leave you listening for a creak on the stairs.
Edmund is an 11 year old boy who lives alone with his father after his mother’s death. Worried that Edmund is lonely, his father arranges for a live-in housekeeper who has a boy around the same age as Edmund. He hoped Charles would be a companion for Edmund, but Edmund isn’t thrilled and Charles is greeted with a note that says ‘I didn’t want you to come here’. There is an overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia in the novel and not just because of the remote location. I started to dread every moment the boys were left alone together, because I knew that Charles would be subjected to Edmund’s bullying. I felt Charles’s fear and despair that this would go on forever. I wanted their parents to notice what was happening, but the boys are alone a lot of the time. The parents are making eyes at each other, wrapped up in their own emotions. His mother admits to making a decision and to ignore Charles’s complaints that Edmund really doesn’t like him. She decides he’s being silly with this talk about them not being friends. Boys do this. It’s just a phase. Everyone remembers a time when they weren’t listened to and I could sense Charles’s anger and frustration at his impossible situation. The ending is a shock, but I think if it had ended any other way I’d have been disappointed. Sometimes things like this don’t blow over. This isn’t for people who like uplifting, happy, endings. It isn’t really horror, in that it’s very realistic. That realism is what makes Edmund and Charles’s story so chilling.
This is probably the most well known of Hill’s ghostly tales, especially since it’s other incarnations as a long running West End play and a successful film starring Daniel Radcliffe. This book was the one that really crept up on me. Since childhood I’ve had a recurring dream, where I’m standing in a corridor and I get an overwhelming sense of evil. Then a creeping blackness starts coming towards me, completely enveloping everything in it’s path. That’s exactly how I felt reading this. At first I was just interested in the story and despite the obvious signs that something is wrong with this house, I didn’t feel scared. Then I woke up in the middle of the night and felt a little bit scared about going to the loo. For some reason I kept thinking someone would be sat on the rocking chair. For some reason this book gets in your head. Even when you think it isn’t. This is the archetypal Gothic novel with an opening reminiscent of Dracula as Arthur Kipps is sent to sort out the estate of a very reclusive woman who died at Eel Marsh House. None of the locals are keen on travelling there and Kipps is too rational to listen to their warnings. He doesn’t believe in ghosts. So we feel his fear, as slowly this rational belief is called into question by every noise or movement, especially the ones that come from the resident poltergeist. Soon after his arrival he sees a mysterious woman, dressed all in black, who seems to be staring directly at him. Who is she and what does she want from Arthur? Hill builds the tension up perfectly, it’s a slow boil until you’re suddenly terrified, but never felt it creeping up on you.
When I was in Venice with my mum, we managed to lose our way back to the hotel one evening. As we stumbled down darkened streets and into complete dead ends, we realised we’d come away from the tourist trail and into a more residential area. This was the book that kept coming to mind and I was waiting to be bundled into a gondola by plague masked men. This is one of those stories that begins with two people warming themselves by a fire on a dark evening. Oliver is at Cambridge University and on this particular night he is in the rooms of his professor, when he notices a painting on the wall. It is a beautifully painted scene of the carnival in Venice and Oliver stops to study it for a while. There is so much to take in, especially the beautiful masks and costumes. Yet this beautiful surface is itself a mask, because the painting has a very dark history. We have all been ‘caught’ by a picture, the one in the gallery window that makes us stop for a moment, but have you ever been captured? This story has a lot of detail in its 150-ish pages and so much atmosphere. Whether it’s Venice’s labyrinthine pathways and dead ends, or the eerie mist of the Cambridge Fens.
This book grabbed me straightaway because my mum had a visit from the small hand once. When in the house babysitting her younger sisters, she saw a small hand holding the open bedroom door, just as if a small child was going to peep round it. Neither sister was the right age for the mystery hand and alongside other strange sightings in the house it was put down to some sort of haunting. Even fifty years on she hasn’t forgotten it. There’s nothing scarier than a little child ghost (except a clown *shudder*). In this story, antiquarian bookseller Adam Snow is returning from a client visit one late evening when he takes a wrong turn. He stumbles across a derelict Edwardian house, and compelled by curiosity, approaches the door. Standing before the entrance, he feels the unmistakable sensation of a small cold hand creeping into his own, ‘as if a child had taken hold of it’. At first he is puzzled by the odd incident, but then begins to suffer attacks of fear and panic, and is visited by nightmares. He is determined to learn more ‘about the house and its once-magnificent, now overgrown garden but when he does so, he receives further, increasingly sinister, visits from the small hand. This is a classic ghost story, narrated by Adam as he tries to unravel the mystery. This one really feels like a period novel due to the linear storytelling, sole narrator and the slow drip feed of information so we can put the clues together. Maybe not as atmospheric as her usual stories, but a great read all the same.
One of the creepiest parts of the film version of The Woman in Black is when the toys in the nursery move – I think it’s a monkey with cymbals or is that just my fertile imagination? We’re back on the misty fens for this story, Two cousins are sent to stay with their Aunt in her isolated ancestral home for the summer. Edward and Lenora are the children of Aunt Kestrel’s warring siblings and their narrative is split into two time frames – the events of that childhood summer and the two cousins returning to Iyot House after their Aunt’s death. Hill manages to create a fairly forbidding atmosphere for the two children with constant rain, falling across a gloomy flat landscape where mist can stay over the fields all day. The house is very like Eel Marsh House in The Woman in Black, with an atmosphere of damp and decay. The two are quite different. Edward is the more stoic of the two, he is shy and polite and probably wouldn’t dream of opening his mouth if something is wrong. Leonora is a different prospect- she comes across as self-centred and spiteful. This could be down to a lifestyle drifting from hotel to stepfather for many years, she’s been awash with material things but hasn’t really been loved.
However, at Iyot House she starts to throw huge tantrums. Are they normal for her or is something at Iyot causing this? Housekeeper Mrs Mullen observes the tantrums are worsening and warns that she has the devil in her. Aunt Kestrel sets out to buy Leonora a birthday present she’s never had, a doll. Yet the doll has an effect no one expected. The opening to this story is really creepy and the atmosphere is incredible, perhaps more so than the actual story in parts. However creepy antique dolls really are terrifying so a haunted one is right up my street and this doll’s powers extend all the way through to Leonora and Edward’s adulthood. Scary and sure to make you avoid antique centres for a while.
Meet The Author.
Susan Hill‘s novels and short stories have won the Whitbread Book, Somerset Maugham, and John Llewellyn Rhys Awards and the Yorkshire Post Book of the Year and have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The play adapted from her famous ghost novel, The Woman in Black, has been running in the West End since 1989. –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.