'The Man in the Picture' by Susan Hill
Well, I actually started my halloween- themed reading challenge.
I will let you take that in for a moment.
Yes, I am still in shock myself! Like all keen readers, though, I did manage a few detours through that precarious and teetering to read tower. In fairness, my three distraction reads could end up replacing some of the titles I have pre-selected to make up this challenge, so we shall see how the next week fairs. Jeanette Winterson's 'The Daylight Gate' was suitably creepy, like the Trio of Witches from that Scottish play writ large but transported to Pendleton Hill; Phil Rickman's first novel in the Merrily Watkins series (thank you Anna Maxwell-Martin for introducing her so well on screen), 'The Wine if Angels' was an eerie countryside crime caper centring on its Vicaress protagonist's spiritual struggles in her new diocese and it's twisted apple trees; and Neil Spring's 'The Watchers' blew me away, in the way I wished his previous work 'The Ghost Hunters' had, with its gripping exploration of extra-terrestrial events in South Wales circa 1970s (a subject that has creeped me out since reading about it in my Gramphs 'Unexplained' magazines).
More of that later, though. Susan Hill, what can I say? She expertly builds a sense of unease, the shiver down the spine, the raised hair on the arm and the furtive need to lift ones head, quickly, from the pages of the story to check that no one or no thing is watching you as your pulse quickens and your eyes widen. She expertly frames the tale within a Jamesian tradition. Elderly fireside narrators do not seem cliched, when you are so skilled at delivering your story that the dread builds in increments. Indeed, the plot works so well precisely because it is placed in a time just beyond the reach of modernity. Where darkness speaks its threat more intently, because it cannot hide beyond the comfort of bustling 24 hour living. Where it can be banished by the flicking of a light switch. Or the dialling of a mobile phone. So much more effective than the sepia- tinged halo that a gas lamp enables. Mobile telephony is like having your own personal exorcist to hand! One click fear banishment.
Yet Theo Parminter and ultimately the unsuspecting Oliver, to whom Theo unburdens his creeping curse onto via the sharing of his uneasy story are not afforded our luxuries. Instead their fears are heightened by the debilitating frailty and infirmity faced by the ageing, by the deserted rooms of University halls and the streets emptied by both the dismal weather winter promotes and the festive setting we associate with such haunting tales. In many ways loneliness is the real fear that underpins this tale, and is perhaps why Hill is usually so effective at writing haunting Novellas. She always allows us to relate to the fears she explores and roots them in reality, rather than opting purely for the fantastical. This is why we can swallow notions of haunted pictures (or dolls, or country houses, or marshlands for that matter) because the fears she explores are precisely our fears!
Yet, while I appreciate the ominous threat the picture contains and the mysterious desire that is expressed by an unknown party wishing obtain the painting, I have to say that the denouement was far from satisfying. Much like Germaine Greers' recent controversial comments about why Caitlin Jenner wishes to be a woman (for her part she proffers that she wishes to steal her step daughters fame for herself), I feel that this story also touches on some unexplored part of a complex issue that needs further consideration or explanation to be properly understood. Just as Caitlin Jenners' transformation, likely has more complex roots (something I think Greer is touching on but not exploring on in enough depth) so too does this tale with its focus on a scorned woman who is not satisfied with destroying the lives of those who have wronged her, but continuing to destroy the lives of those who own the painting. This aspect of the tale did not work for me, especially as it exactly mirrors the malign malice so expertly explored at Eel Marsh House. To rely on this again, instead, for me as a reader anyway, made me focus too much on the intent of the malice and in turn the writers exploration of it. More precicesly, why does Hill chose to explore it again? It makes it seem obsessive, yet the focus is misplaced from story to authoress. Perhaps this is the point. For my part, I would have preferred further clarification as to why this woman would want to harm others, especially when she has enacted her revenge. It also throws into question why Oliver is burdened by his jovial and much loved Professor to such devastating effect. Did he attempt to unburden himself? Are we all a little dark and twisted?
Unsettling and unclear, this uncanny tale leaves questions unanswered and you will wonder all the more about all our motivations and how deep they really are and the Venetian masks we wear...