In The Suitable Surroundings, Ambrose Bierce suggests that to give the piece and its author due respect, a horror story should be read in “the frame of mind appropriate to the sentiment of the piece … in solitude – at night – by the light of a candle … for [a] ghost story to be effective you must be made to feel fear – at least a strong sense of the supernatural – and that is a difficult matter”. If anyone should know, it’s Ambrose Bierce – so I feel some regret that I didn’t give Susan Hill’s The Man in The Picture: A Ghost Story the consideration it deserved.
Nevertheless, I was charmed from page one. Frankly, I was surprised to learn that Susan Hill is still alive and kicking, because The Man in The Picture (first published 2007) is so perfectly a distillation of what I expect from a Victorian ghost story, it never occurred to me that it could possibly be a contemporary tale. It’s no wonder, though – if you’ve heard of Susan Hill there’s a good chance it’s because of The Woman in Black, and if you’re familiar with The Woman in Black then you know it is to Gothic Horror as The Matrix is to Cyberpunk – the spirit of an entire genre encapsulated in a single work.
At this point I must guiltily admit that I’ve never read The Woman in Black, and I’m basing that description entirely on the film adaptation released in 2012, starring Daniel Radcliffe, and which did respectably well. Nevertheless, I’d heartily recommend the novel on the strength of The Man in The Picture alone, so taken was I with Hill’s story of vindictive obsession in dark and sinister Venice.
It’s not all sunshine and daisies and this isn’t Lollipop Land, though; The Man in The Picture isn’t perfect. It’s not quite up there with the visceral dread of something from the likes of Thomas Ligotti or Clive Barker, and anyone familiar with Gothic Horror – or Horror in general – may find the book cutesy rather than creepy. The Man in The Picture doesn’t do anything particularly original or innovative – it’s a refinement rather than a revolution – but what it does, it does well. At only around 140 pages, it’s the perfect length to read over a chill winter evening, too.
So, I didn’t give The Man in The Picture the proper treatment a good horror story deserves. I read it at the train station, whilst waiting to give blood, and I read it on the sofa. I didn’t make allowances for appropriately-guttering candlelight, or suitably ominous weather. There was no ambience at all.
But it didn’t matter.
The Man in The Picture is atmospheric, entertaining, and it has a fair few chills. I didn’t read it alone on a dark and stormy night with only the creaking walls of an isolated cabin separating me from the howling wind and driving rain – but I may as well have. Reading The Man in The Picture I was engaged, I was engrossed, and I was transported.
And, really, isn’t that the point of books?
The Charity-Shop Book Review aims to bring to your attention all those overlooked treasures that wash up on charity-shop bookshelves, and updates on the second Tuesday of every month. Follow @DaneCurel to make sure you aren’t missing out on any forgotten favourites.