The Small Hand by Susan Hill

The Small Hand by Susan Hill    
The Small Hand by Susan Hill    

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I have said it before and I will say it again. Susan Hill certainly knows how to write a darn good ghost story. I have reviewed several on the blog. In this one we meet Adam, an antiquarian bookseller, who gets lost in the English countryside and stumbles across a run down Edwardian house in the middle of nowhere.  Frankly that should have been enough for him to turn his car around, drive quickly away and never look back. That wouldn’t be much of a book though would it?

He goes to explore the place and feels a small cold hand take his, a child’s hand.  He is subsequently hounded by nightmares and more episodes of the hand in his, sometimes more threatening than others.

I won’t say any more for fear of spoilers, suffice to say it is creepy. Very creepy. There are some stunning set pieces in particular a journey up a narrow mountain road to a monastery, which frankly had me terrified*. The ending is clever, linking the small hand to the lives of the characters within the book without feeling forced. It’s a quick, but excellently crafted read. Just don’t go exploring derelict Edwardian houses willy nilly. It will only end in tears.

 *I should know better than to read Hill’s books at night.

The Eyes by Edith Wharton

The Eyes by Edith Wharton
The Eyes by Edith Wharton

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This is a lovely edition from the folks at Galley Beggar Press as a part of their ghost story set.

This little book was a really interesting read for me. An old writer, having had some friends round for dinner proceeds to tell them how, on two occasions he has been haunted by a pair of disembodied eyes at the foot of his bed.

On one level it is a straightforward, rather creepy ghost story about a man who doesn’t behave very well towards his fiancée being made to pay by a malevolent sprit. However, after some consideration I wondered if there was a little bit more to this than met the, pardon the pun, eye.  Several aspects of it were nagging at me. A couple of hours of research later, and it is clear that readers from around the web all have very different and inconclusive ideas about what the eyes actually were.

I don’t want to give too much away, but would love to know if anyone else has read it, and what they thought the eyes were. 

The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf

This was a real life book club read. Written in 1842, it is an allegory about the meaning of Christian beliefs and the nature of evil. 

It is a short novella set in a small Swiss mountain village. The story starts on the morning of a Christening, and the first half of the book has a great deal of detail about the preparations for the event, and I will admit that I struggled with it. The second half though was fantastic. It feature an old man from the Christening party telling all the guests the reason that an old beam remains and integral part of a new house. The reason revolves around a pact with the devil made generations previously and still haunts the village. 

It is clearly a story meant as a sermon, but it also an early horror story and that alone makes it interesting. It isn’t something I would ordinarily have picked up, but I am really glad that I have read it. It is interesting that what was considered frightening in 1842, still has that creep factor even now. 

Dark Matter By Michelle Paver

ISBN: 978-1409121183

Published By Orion

This book sat on my to be read bookshelf for over a year, when a book club I attend chose it as a group read. I had heard very mixed reviews about it and I think that had prevented me from picking it up. Having read it, I then came down with a nasty cold, and never made it to the book club meeting!

The book is set in Spitsbergen, in the Arctic in the late 1930s. Four young Englishmen, set off to spend the winter studying the Arctic. The book is Jack’s diary, of the time he spent there. 

The expedition is fraught with difficulties from the off, when the Norwegian crew who are to take them to their camp site are clearly spooked by going there, and one of the team of four breaks his leg and never makes it to the Arctic.

The three remaining adventurers make it to the camp, and the endless night of an Arctic winter begins, bringing with it strange and eerie occurrences which none of them will admit to the others that they have seen.  Eventually, due to illness, two of the team leave, meaning Jack is there alone to hold the fort until they can return. 

The book is a ghost story and it isn’t bad, although I think it could have been better. There is a sub-plot about class divisions and also a romance between two of the characters, both of which were done rather poorly and didn’t add anything to the story at all. My own opinion on ghost stories is that the reader needs to be come as obsessed with what might be out there as the characters are and not be side tracked into other plot lines. 

The setting of the Arctic was fantastic and Paver is at her best when describing how harsh, beautiful and in control the environment there is and it was these passages that I enjoyed the most.

Did it scare me? Yes it did. Am I still scared by it a week later? Not really. 

Ghost Stories By MR James

ISBN: 978-0099560562

Published By Vintage Classics

Assuming you can get past the cover which was enough to give me the creeps in the first place, inside you will find a series of short ghost stories which MR James wipped up to entertain friends and family at Christmas.  

James was a scholar at Cambrigde University and many of his stories are about academics going about their business, researching an obscure subject only to make a discovery which leads them into disturbing and paranormal realms. They often start with a description of the protagonist going about his normal day, setting up the idea that this type of experience could happen to anyone. Often it is the curoisty of the poor soul which leads them to their fate.

Whereas many horror stories have the protagonist meet a violent end at the hands of some supernatural being, James’s protagonsits tend to bring about their own end through their own terror, which leads to the question of whether there was really anything spooky going on at all, or whether their immgainations had run away with them.

The stories were published between 1904 and 1925, and the societal norms of the day were used as added fear factor. For example, contact between character such as a touch on the shoulder signalled an evil intent, as such physicallity was not the norm then. He also seems to have a bit of an obession with the horror of hair. It crops up all the time, dank, greasey, matted and wet to name but afew. It would seem that MR James only approved of beautiful glossy locks. 

The language is creepy and has that abilty to instill terror rather than horror, and reading the stories back to back really creates a chilling tension which crept back into my mind one early, dark, dank morning stood alone on platform 2 of my local railway station. 

These are great stories, read them with the lights down low, and even if you won’t admit it in public, you will feel a tingle of dread flow down your spine.

 

Advent Review Day 21: The Woman In Black By Susan Hill

ISBN: 978-0099511649

Published By Vintage Classics

Ghost stories were a part of a traditional Victorian Christmas and so I thought I would include on in my advent reading list.

This is the book upon which the famous (and utterly terrifying) stage play is based. Arthur Kipps, a solicitor, is sent to a small town in the East of England to see to the final affairs of Alice Drablow. Mrs Drablow lived in a remote house at the end of Nine Lives Causeway which is cut off by the sea at high tide. 

As Arthur tries to discover more about his deceased client, the more he finds the locals will not talk, nor will they go anywhere near the house. He doesn’t take heed of their thinly veiled warnings and decides to spend a few nights in the house to sort out Mrs Drablow’s papers. As the title of the book suggests, he starts to see the mysterious woman in black, and eventually finds out who she is and what happened to her.

The brilliance of this book is the way the tension is built. Very little is said which is obviously frightening, but the way the woman influences Arthur’s mind and thought process is chilling. This is a proper, one hundred percent scare the living daylights out of you, give you the creeps for weeks afterwards ghost story.  Go on, read it. I dare you.

 

The Premature Burial By Edgar Allan Poe

Published 1844, free to download from iTunes

I am slightly alarmed by how quickly this year has gone, but it is that time again when children dressed as zombies demand sweets with menaces. If you fancy giving yourself a bit of a fright then I would recommend Edgar Alan Poe’s short story “The Premature Burial”. Poe is more famously known for The Fall of the House of Usher and The Raven (remember that Simpsons episode?), so exploring some of his other work is a nice treat.

The story centers on an unnamed narrator who has a morbid fear of being buried alive. He recounts a series of examples of people being prematurely interred, and their obvious attempts at escape. He plans meticulously to ensure he never faces the same fate. There is a twist of course, but I will let you discover what happens to the poor chap yourself.

This is an interesting Halloween read as there isn’t any supernatural element to it, but it is utterly terrifying. Towards the end my heart was pounding as I willed our hero to be alright and my mind raced to work out what I would do in the same situation. Generally speaking, horror with lots of blood and gore, doesn’t scare me, but this type of narrative which plays with your mind and rouses some basic, primeval fears does get to me, and I think is a much more subtle, but long lasting fright.

Turn the lights down low, close the curtains and prepare to feel the claustrophobic reality of being buried alive…