An 18th-century painting of masked revelers at the Grand Canal has sinister properties
The Man in the Picture: A Ghost Story. By Susan Hill. Overlook, 145 pp., $15.
By Janice Harayda
A Halloween-costume superstore has opened in my town and raised the frightening possibility that I will soon be the only person on the streets not dressed like Bigfoot or a tavern wench. I will defend to the death anyone’s sartorial-first-amendment right to don a Borat Lycra Mankini or a Sexy Ms. Mental Patient outfit (“includes shirt with vinyl restraints”).
But if you’re looking for another way to spend Halloween, why not read a ghost story? You might start with this intelligent new novella by the English author Susan Hill.
The Man in the Picture lacks the psychological complexity of Patrick McGrath’s neo-Gothic novels and Alison Lurie’s underrated short story collection, Women and Ghosts. But Hill’s book works on its own terms, which are those of a well-crafted Victorian ghost story. The opening lines set the tone:
“The story was told to me by my old tutor, Theo Parmitter, as we sat beside the fire in his college rooms one bitterly cold January night. There were still real fires in those days, the coals brought up by the servant in huge brass scuttles. I had traveled down from London to see my old friend, who was by then well into his eighties …”
The tale involves a painting that Theo bought at auction as a young man, an untitled 18th-century work showing masked revelers at a carnival in Venice. From several narrators we learn that that the picture has a chimerical effect: New people seem to keep appearing in it. The meaning of the changes begins to emerge when a countess summons Theo to her Yorkshire estate and links the painting to acts of sexual jealousy and revenge, an ill-fated honeymoon in Venice and the violent deaths of her husband and son. Lady Hawdon warns Theo that for his own good, he must sell her the painting. He doesn’t sell. Alas, poor Theo!
True to the conventions of Gothic novels, The Man in the Picture has shadowy hallways, long-buried secrets and odd noises in the night. It also includes a genteel psychopath whose mental instability appears contagious. Characters tend to stay conveniently out of range of pragmatists who could shout at crucial moments, “No! No! Don’t go into that empty room!”
By modern standards, much of the plot is no more rational than the idea that a priceless garnet would end up inside a Christmas goose in the Sherlock Holmes tale “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” And it isn’t supposed to meet contemporary tests of plausibility. Like dressing up as tavern wench, it’s unabashed retro escapism, well suited to a month when you may hear mysterious sounds as you stumble through the darkened rooms of a haunted house.
Best line: “The faces of the revelers were many of them the classic Venetian, with prominent noses, the same faces that could be seen on Magi and angels, saints and popes, in the great paintings that filled Venice’s churches.”
Worst line: “She was extremely old, with the pale-parchment textured skin that goes with great age, a skin like the paper petals of dried Honesty.” The similie reaches for a higher tone than the rest of the book.
Recommendation? In the U.S. ghost stories have been so thoroughly absorbed into the horror-novel genre that, except in children’s fiction, few writers attempt them and readers tend to associate them with lumbering behemoths like Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers. The Man in the Picture gives Americans a chance to rediscover the appeal of these stories in a purer and in some ways more elegant form.
Because of its conversational tone and multiple narrators, this is also good book to read aloud, which you could probably do in less than two and a half hours. Book clubs might consider having members take turns reading this one aloud at a meeting instead of reading it in advance.
Published: October 2008 www.susan-hill.com/
Second opinion: Salley Vickers observed perceptively 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.”
Furthermore: Hill also wrote two mystery novels about Chief Inspector Simon Serailler and The Woman in Black www.thewomaninblack.com/, the theatrical version of which opened in 1989 in London’s West End and is one of its longest-running shows.
Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.