The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill

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The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill

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Category: Horror
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Another ghost story from Ms Hill, featuring a male testimony regarding inheriting a connection to evil – how does she keep doing it, and doing it so well?
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 160 Date: September 2012
Publisher: Profile Books
ISBN: 9781846685446

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There is a theory regarding ghosts that they are projected recordings from the very brickwork of buildings – that 'stone tapes' can replay scenes or characters of heightened emotion so that people can see the vestige of what went before. What if something a bit more animated than a building – a lively, realistic oil painting – can also convey collected recorded instances of such strong feelings - feelings such as mortal terror? It would be like Dorian Gray's portrait, recording all the horrors, keeping them intact in one place – but would it be the cause or the effect?

Such a picture, regarding a dusky Venetian carnival scene, is hanging in the rooms of a Cambridge don, when our narrator turns up to spend time with the man who embodies his alma mater. The professor has his tale to tell, at the close of his life, and it concerns other people's interactions with the painting too – it has in fact been building up a sense of dread in many. The how and the why are not to be discovered in these pages – pages that, much like Hill's more recent Dolly, show her stretching what we might expect of a ghost story. You will learn of a malevolent figure, or two if our narrator is to be believed, but in many ways the painting itself is the ghost – an amalgam of emotions and events that should have been forgotten and left to pass into the ether, but maintains its presence, for good or bad.

There is the expected timeless aspect to this tale – we don't ever get told when we are in this series of Hill's novels – and the ageless qualities of the Cambridge colleges is added to by flashbacks to country houses, honeymoons in the style of the Grand Tour, and so on. To me there was something too unrealistic, too 19th-Century Novel, about a painting one has to stare at and pore over and feel a part of, forever finding new characters and cameo scenes to discover. But this review comes from a second reading of this short novel, and even in the spook-demolishing surroundings of a sunny autumn Sunday morning, I found more respect this time for the mood and ambivalence of the edgy tale. Perhaps it initially came too soon after a revisit to The Woman in Black, and the sense of a male narrator, unwittingly inheriting the vestiges of something evil, which spread to what seemed at first look too many people, was lacking in enough variety. But on this repeat reading, where I had certainly forgotten enough of the structure, mood, twisting events and – to repeat – ambiguity – I found nothing that particularly meant this could not happily stand proud next to her most famous work. She certainly knows what she is doing with bending the walls of the ghost story format, and this opens up Venice into a stranger light than she is normally seen in, while still keeping us plumped up firmly in a good old English fireside chair, distilled beverage of choice in our reach. Just as little faults that scenario, neither does much in this book, despite my first reading's reservations.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson has a tenuous link to Susan Hill, but has been a very successful story of evil that you may well enjoy.

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