The Ghost Stories of Susan Hill

The Fortune Theatre in London’s West End is a small Edwardian building, a short walk from Covent Garden, and just around the corner from the monumental Theatre Royal on Drury Lane. Tucked away on Russell Street, one could be forgiven for not knowing of its existence. However, since 1989 it has been home to one of the longest running plays in London: The Woman in Black.

This effective and well-staged Victorian ghost story is based on the novel by Susan Hill. A young lawyer is sent from London to a remote house in rural marshland, where an elderly client has died. He must stay in the house to go through the late woman’s documents, and this is the scene of terrifying discoveries, and the key to the mysterious woman in black.

This is the best known of Hill’s ghost stories, but they all share the same quality – a mixture of loneliness, despair and creeping fear. The Mist in the Mirror, another Victorian story, tells of a man returning from travelling the world and now set on finding out his own family history, and also the history of his favourite traveller Conrad Vane. He is repeatedly warned that pursuing his interest in Vane will cause unimaginable trouble. He ignores these warnings, and pays the price.

Two more contemporary stories are The Man in the Picture and The Small Hand. All four tales feature a single, unattached male narrator, usually intelligent and well read, inquisitive and sympathetic. Each narrator is drawn into something beyond his control, something connected with some tragic and mysterious chapter in history. The intrigue pulls the reader in until we feel both anxiety and excitement when something is at last revealed: an old photograph contains a telling detail, a figure appears, who only the narrator can see. But like all good ghost stories, these books aren’t really about ghosts. Susan Hill has said that as a Christian she doesn’t believe in apparitions making visitations from beyond the grave. This is reflected in the way the stories are less about the ghosts themselves, but more about guilt, identity, and coming to terms with the past.

Hill writes with precision. Her prose evokes a sense of place, the smells, tastes, and physical landscapes of her settings – London, or Venice, or high French mountains. And yet the story is never put on hold for the sake of a description. Story and style go hand in hand, to great effect. The stories are shorter than an average novel, and a couple of them could even be read in one sitting.

Of all these stories I find The Woman in Black to be the most powerful. It takes the severity of the haunting one step further, and includes the most shocking conclusion of them all. But I won’t say any more than that. Light a fire one winter’s night, pull up a large armchair and read the books yourself. The ghost of the story will stay with you only as long as your fear will allow; Susan Hill’s prose will stay much longer than that.

Openings

A bad opening line can kill a reader’s interest. But done well, the opening sentence of a novel can do a few things – it can give us a flavour of the story, introduce an important place or person, intrigue or shock us. There’s no formula, but let me give some of the best examples of each of the devices I’ve mentioned: flavour, introduction, intrigue, and shock.

The flavour is what the novel’s world feels like to us. As a reader we’re going to spend a lot of time in its world, so the atmosphere is important. Read one of the Inspector Montalbano books, like August Heat, and feel the Sicilian sun on your face; read Rebecca and sense the gothic beauty and chill of Manderlay; read Perfume and get a sickening whiff of eighteenth-century France before sanitation. The opening line of Casino Royale evokes a world brilliantly: ‘The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.’ In sixteen words we have entered another world. The opening line gives us a flavour, the rest of the book provides a whole taste.

Introducing a place or a character sounds like an obvious thing to do at the beginning of a novel, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do well. Here’s Graham Greene’s opening for Brighton Rock: ‘Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.’ It’s brilliantly simple. We’re introduced to the character Hale, the city of Brighton, a murderous group, whoever ‘they’ are, and the situation itself. It gets to the point, with no words wasted. It grabs our attention and gives us a lot of information, but without lacking intrigue.

And for intrigue we can turn to the first page of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four: ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ If that’s not intriguing, I don’t know what is. It fills your mind with questions. Why do the clocks strike thirteen? What kind of a world are we in? It’s surreal, disconcerting, and sets the tone for the nightmare that follows. I won’t say here why the clocks are striking thirteen. Needless to say, something sinister is happening.

And now for a shock. I once read a popular thriller which opens with someone dying from poisoning. It was a gruesome opening, but it was also very boring. Presumably the author thought he could shock the reader and grab their attention with sensationalism and blood. It didn’t work. Shock should have an element of surprise. Here’s the opening to A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell: ‘Eunice Parchman killed the Cloverdale family because she could not read or write.’ It’s a shocking and bizarre motive for a crime. It makes us ask ‘How?’ and ‘Why?’ It’s such an unlikely opening to a novel, we want to know more. Also there’s the added shock that at the beginning of a crime novel, we’re told exactly who the murderer is.

These are just some of my personal favourites. The opening line should be carefully crafted with the aim of making us read on. When it’s successful, we cannot resist. If you’re a writer, choose your opening words carefully. They’re probably the most important words you’ll write.

The Unpainted Veil

One morning in 1956, almost a year after the publication of Moonraker, Ian Fleming received a letter from a stranger. Fleming had written three James Bond novels, but they weren’t yet as successful as he had hoped. The author of the letter was Geoffrey Boothroyd, a Glaswegian who wrote to point out how poor Bond’s choice of firearms was. Boothroyd had an expert knowledge of firearms, and Fleming didn’t. From then on Fleming took Boothroyd’s advice, and went as far as creating a character in the series called Major Boothroyd, a specialist in weapons.

Characters who appear in fiction as thinly disguised versions of real people may occur more often than we think. In the case of Fleming and Boothroyd the result was flattering. But there are far more dangerous, and less happy, examples which might serve as warnings.

Somerset Maugham brilliantly captures bohemian Paris in his novel The Magician. The magician of the title, the disturbing and sinister Oliver Haddo, is a physically and morally repulsive man. There is little to redeem him as he manipulates the innocent, invokes dark forces, and carries out terrible human experiments. The book was so shocking that initially Maugham’s agent couldn’t find a publisher. The character of Haddo was based on Aleister Crawley, the infamous occultist, who Maugham met and disliked. The resemblance was clear, complete with vanity, charisma, and amorality. The magician comes out of the book badly, but Crawley was pleased with the further noteriety that followed. In keeping with his bizarre behaviour he reviewed the book in Vanity Fair, signing the review as Oliver Haddo. It’s difficult to know whether this response was just affectation. It is reported that later in life Crawley resented Maugham.

Once a book is published, and especially after it has gained success, there is no going back. The characters are out there. If there is damage done, it is done. There’s the insulting representation of Hugh Walpole as Alroy Kear in Cakes and Ale (Maugham again) or the character Adam Lang, an ex-prime minister guilty of war crimes, who resembles Tony Blair in more ways than Tony Blair would be comfortable with, in Robert Harris’ The Ghost. These authors have found ways of saying through fiction what they could never say in real life for fear of libel.

Perhaps the most satisfying way of putting a real person into fiction was achieved by Agatha Christie. She spent time with the controlling and eccentric Katherine Wooley on an expedition to Ur in modern Iraq. The two women did not get on well. Katherine Wooley became Louise Leidner in Murder in Messopatamia, and was promptly murdered.

Perhaps the most satisfying way of putting a real person into fiction was achieved by Agatha Christie. She spent time with the controlling and eccentric Katherine Wooley on an expedition to Ur in modern Iraq. The two women did not get on well. Katherine Wooley became Louise Leidner in Murder in Messopatamia, and was promptly murdered.

For the writer it is an encouragement to know that inspiration for characters is all around. And for everyone else it is a warning to be extra careful around writers.

Sources: The Secret Life of Somerset Maugham – Selina Hastings

The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie – Charles Osbourne

Agatha Christie: A Life – Laura Thompson

Ian Fleming and James Bond – Ben McIntyre