The Small Hand by Susan Hill (Book Review)

Much like its illustrious predecessor The Woman in Black, Susan Hill’s The Small Hand gives us a rational, mildly religious narrator whose initial spine-chilling experience takes an age to develop into something more horrible as his everyday life and his own reason delay him in delving into what he has experienced. ‘Something more horrible’ then ends in an abrupt sort of deus ex machina that restores calm and normality, before Hill rolls out her horrifying pièce de résistance and we end the novella in a complete panic with our hands over our mouths. Most of these qualities, however effective they were in making The Woman in Black so iconic, tend to turn The Small Hand into a small incidental more admirable for the technical mastery of its narrative than for its ability to shock, the latter being something we can, not unnecessarily, consider indispensable in a novella subtitled A Ghost Story.

It is on his way to pay a visit to a rich client in the country that antique book dealer Adam Snow first encounters the White House, a derelict mansion with an enormous, overgrown garden that bears signs of a glorious past. Drawn to the place by some inexplicable force, Adam soon jumps out of his skin at the feeling of a child’s small, cool hand taking his; a ghostly gesture that seems to have no intention but a benign one; perhaps the greeting of another human being by a spirit long left to itself. Adam recalls the incident with fondness and determines to go back to the White House and to explore its past. That’s before the small hand begins to pull him towards cliff edges and pools, demonstrating an apparently malevolent urge to ensure Adam’s departure from this world through suicide. Add some ghastly nightmares and hallucinations, a brother incarcerated in an asylum for a year and a grand old house that was once the toast of the kingdom, and you have classic Susan Hill dynamite in a little package that can be read in two hours.

Hill is especially good at writing convincingly about ordinary, unexceptional people, and much of this is to do with her highly developed command of narrative voice. In The Small Hand, we’re consequently perfectly convinced that we’re dealing with plain old upper English middle class Adam Snow, antique book dealer. Adam’s attitude to most things is one of habitual restraint, and he doesn’t seem to talk about anything with unabashed enthusiasm except books and libraries, though even these instances are not as marked as they would be in a more extroverted person. He is a man firmly grounded in reason and rather lacking in imagination. This shows itself in controlled, well-expressed, matter-of-fact prose, even at moments of high emotion and accounts for much of Adam’s conduct: his rather calm initial acceptance of the small hand as a thing whose real existence he does not doubt, his delayed rather than immediate supposition that his experience is the result of insanity, and the constant, infuriating way that his acting on this experience is continually delayed and shoved into a corner of his unconscious mind by the most mundane distractions imaginable. A consequence of this is that the novella’s plot takes the length of The Kalevala to develop without there being much in the way of character to fascinate us in between, Adam himself being rather boring, but not so boring that we don’t care what happens to him.

'Deciding to Sink' by Pete B on deviantart.com

‘Deciding to Sink’ by Pete B on deviantart.com

When the plot does finally manage to get going, The Small Hand is shocking and mesmerising, with seemingly unimportant details suddenly assuming great significance. The last part of the novella is like a horserace against the pages themselves, all the suspense that has been building up (and sometimes lacking) exploding in one small, psychological place that could lead to a great variety of paper cuts on the reader’s part. The inevitable final twist is thrilling and brilliant, with Hill never losing control of the narrative poise that she has so often demonstrated.

The Small Hand’s great qualities do not quite succeed in overshadowing the duller sheen of its earlier pages; in making the wait worthwhile. One often feels that Hill requires a lesson from Bram Stoker, or indeed from her earlier self, in the correct way to gradually build up suspense and hold the reader’s interest: it’s not enough to disjointedly imply here and there before dumping a tidal wave on our heads. A more interesting protagonist may have greatly assisted a plot that takes such a long time to unfold; nevertheless, it’s an exquisitely well-written book that is very well characterised and in many ways, particularly its last part, shows a consummate knowledge of how to portray a classic ghost novel plot that fools a reader into believing they’re reading it for the first time.

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